Hong Kong lawmakers will be suspended for at least a week if their behaviour is deemed “grossly disorderly conduct” under sweeping amendments to the Legislative Council rule book passed on Thursday by the chamber’s overwhelming pro-establishment majority.
The legislature’s near-unanimous endorsement of 37 changes to its rules of procedure – aimed at further curbing filibustering and other political tactics – followed just four hours of debate, with hardly any opposition lawmakers left in the council to make their case.
Among the approved amendments – voted through by 38 to 1 – was a provision for suspending “misbehaving” legislators, as well as tougher time limits for debating bills and lawmaker speeches.
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The only legislator to vote against the motion was Civic Passion’s Cheng Chung-tai, the lone opposition figure in Legco following the mass resignation of the bloc in response to the disqualification of some colleagues.
Cheng described the changes as unnecessary, saying Beijing’s planned shake-up of the city’s elections system was being designed to screen out those who might “misbehave”.
“If all lawmakers are already deemed ‘patriots’ in future, what’s the point of making further amendments to suspend them?” Cheng said. “The move would only further stifle the room for discussion in Legco.”
But Paul Tse Wai-chun, who moved the amendments as chairman of Legco’s rules of procedure committee, said the overhaul was not aimed at the opposition but to bring back “rational debate” to the city legislature.
“The administration should not think there will be no obstacles in governance with the new amendments and electoral changes approved by the National People’s Congress (NPC),” he told the debate, referring to China’s legislature.
“If the governance is poor and triggers a lot of grievances, [the government] is still under pressure to face resistance from the people.”
Citing the “broken window theory”, he said failing to plug loopholes in Legco’s rules in a timely manner could signal that lawmakers were not subject to regulations.
The amendments – jointly suggested by several pro-establishment lawmakers – were floated after nearly all of the city’s opposition legislators resigned last November over a Beijing resolution that disqualified four of their colleagues for perceived disloyalty.
The bloc said past incidents of filibustering and other political antics in the chamber involving the “grossly disorderly conduct” of certain members had caused great disruption.
One of the key amendments include empowering the president to suspend from duty a lawmaker deemed to have “misbehaved”. A motion could be moved by the House Committee chairman – and subsequently voted on by all members – to determine whether that person should be suspended from taking part in all council meetings for a specified period.
Previously, the president or the chairman of a committee or panel were empowered only to oust from a particular meeting a member judged to have been misbehaving.
The length of suspension depended on a lawmaker’s previous behaviour, with first-time offenders given a one-week ban but those falling foul a second time barred for a fortnight, according to the endorsed changes.
Another amendment allows the chairman and deputy of a committee to hold office until the new chairman for the next term is elected. That enables meetings to be held before the election has concluded.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairwoman of the New People’s Party, told Thursday’s debate that she hoped the changes would prevent a repeat of the saga, finally ending last year, that gridlocked the work of a key Legco committee for months.
During that episode, the opposition bloc dragged out the election of the House Committee chairmanship for more than five months in a bid to block the progress of the since-approved national anthem bill. The committee scrutinises draft legislation introduced to Legco and decides when they are put to a final vote.
“We went through months of chaos without dealing with any bills. What [Dennis Kwok] did was obviously paralysing the council. There is a necessity to avoid abuses of the rules of procedure,” she said, referring to the former Civic Party lawmaker and ex-deputy of the house committee.
Lawmakers also supported requiring lawmakers to give two days’ notice of their intention to move any motions at a committee meeting, instead of allowing them to be proposed without warning, in another attempt to curb filibustering.
Other changes approved on Thursday included reducing the debating time allowed for bills – currently at the discretion of Legco president – to only four hours, while also limiting lawmaker speeches in council meetings to a maximum of five minutes, from the existing quarter of an hour.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao Cheung-kong said the time constraints would speed up the scrutiny of proposed electoral changes and the 30 outstanding bills the administration was aiming to table in the remaining 11 meetings before the Legco recess in July.
“We have a heavy agenda. The reduced debate time will encourage members to give more precise speeches, hence improving the efficiency of the legislature,” he said.
But Civic Passion’s Cheng was concerned that allowing just five minutes for each member would only give the enough time to express their broad stance on a subject, without much elaboration. He suggested leaving it to the Legco president to decide whether a speech was repetitive.
The latest amendments form only the first of two rounds of the pro-establishment camp’s proposed changes to the rule book. Other plans – such as withholding the remuneration of “misbehaving” lawmakers on a pro-rata basis and limiting the size of committees – would be studied further at a later date.
The camp was also eyeing tightening the requirements for calling a quorum, a tactic the opposition frequently used to delay proceedings by forcing a headcount of lawmakers.
Citing online unverified figures, Starry Lee Wai-king, chairwoman of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, said there were 500 occasions between 2016 and 2020 when quorum calls were “abused”, causing meetings to be aborted.
“What’s disheartening is that the public has been antagonised. If the situation goes on, Hong Kong will become a second-tier city of the mainland,” she said.
In 2017, the pro-establishment bloc passed a series of amendments to the Legco rule book aimed at curbing filibusters, including one that allowed fewer lawmakers to be present in the chamber for certain types of meetings.
Following those amendments, stalling tactics such as forcing headcounts and prolonging their speeches were the only ones left at pan-democrats’ disposal.
Last November, 15 opposition lawmakers resigned en masse in protest at a resolution handed down by the NPC Standing Committee, which effectively unseated four of their allies and empowered local government to remove politicians deemed unpatriotic.
Earlier this month, the NPC passed a resolution for an overhaul of Hong Kong’s elections system to ensure only “patriots” held key positions of political power.
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