Hong Kong’s pro-establishment lawmakers are pushing for another overhaul of the legislature’s rule book in a bid to further curb filibustering, two months after the mass departure of their opposition counterparts.
But critics fear the latest batch of amendments will “fully” limit dissent and effectively bar lawmakers from voicing concerns over controversial bills in the future.
The proposals – which consisted of more than 100 pages of documents jointly suggested by several pro-establishment lawmakers – were floated more than two months after nearly all of the city’s opposition legislators resigned over a Beijing resolution that disqualified four of their colleagues for perceived disloyalty.
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Paul Tse Wai-chun, chairman of the rules of procedure committee in the Legislative Council, confirmed that more than 20 amendments were discussed during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday afternoon.
Among the amendments was one that would scrap the rules allowing lawmakers to make quorum call requests – a tactic frequently used by the opposition to delay proceedings by forcing a headcount.
Under the newly proposed rules, lawmakers would only be allowed to ask the Legco president for a quorum call directly before a vote.
“[Quorum calls] have always been [an issue] for this legislature,” Tse said after the meeting. “On one hand we have Basic Law Article 75 confining us to a basic quorum, [but on the other], we have been wasting a lot of time when requests for quorum calls were abused time and again. We have been trying to find a way to get around the Basic Law.”
Article 75 states that the quorum for a Legco meeting shall be no less than half of all members, and the council can make its own rules of procedure, provided these do not contravene the Basic Law.
Tse said that to minimise any possible legal challenges, the camp would seek external legal advice on the amendment to see how the legislature could deal with quorum calls in a more reasonable and pragmatic way.
The current rules of procedure set no restrictions on how many quorum calls a lawmaker can request during a meeting, which must be adjourned if a quorum is not present after a 15-minute window.
Legal advice is also being sought on another proposed amendment in which a 15-member cap would be introduced for each panel, bills committee and subcommittee – a major change from previous practice, under which there was essentially no limit on the number of lawmakers who could join.
“We are just trying to get the council back on track,” Tse said. “Compared to other countries such as Canada, the United States and Australia, none of them would allow an unlimited number of members to sit on these panels. It will just disrupt the effectiveness of councils.”
Tse added that apart from those two more controversial amendments, most of the other changes were likely to be passed in Legco by the end of March, after further discussion on the rules of procedure and House Committee.
Another proposal would restrict the time allowed for the election of chairmans for Legco committees and subcommittees to 30 minutes.
The move was seen as an attempt to prevent a repeat of last year, when the opposition bloc dragged out the election of the House Committee chairmanship for more than six months in a bid to stop the now-approved national anthem law from being discussed.
Debating time for bills, meanwhile, which is currently at the chairman’s discretion, would be reduced to just four hours, while the time granted to lawmakers for speeches would shrink from 15 to five minutes.
Pro-establishment lawmakers are also hoping to require members to seek the Legco president’s approval before interrupting other legislators when raising a point of order – something not required under current rules.
Civic Passion’s Cheng Chung-tai, one of the two independent lawmakers remaining on the council, voiced concerns over the proposal to allow only 15 members on each committee, saying some controversial bills, such as those in 2018 that allowed mainland officials to impose national laws within parts of the city’s rail terminus in West Kowloon, could no longer be effectively scrutinised.
“The pro-establishment camp is trying to completely wipe out the opposition camp’s tools to raise objections and completely eliminate the space to check and balance the government,” he said.
In 2017, the pro-establishment bloc passed a series of amendments to the Legco rule book aimed at curbing filibustering, including one that allowed fewer lawmakers to be present in the chamber for certain types of meetings.
Following those changes, stalling tactics such as forcing headcounts and maximising speaking time – neither of which violate current Legco rules – were the only ones left at pan-democrats’ disposal.
Last November, 15 opposition lawmakers resigned en masse in protest of a resolution handed down by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee which effectively unseated four of their allies.
The ruling also empowered the local government to unseat politicians deemed to have engaged in a range of acts, from endangering national security to dishonouring their pledge of allegiance and refusing to support China’s sovereignty over the city.
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