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Liberals fall out of favour

The second of a two-part series on Legco looks at how a party that was once a key government ally has gradually faded into the background
Tanna Chong
Aug 07, 2012

There was a time when the pro-business Liberal Party was one of the government’s staunchest allies, particularly when it came to supporting the administration’s legislative programme.

However, an analysis by the South China Morning Post (SEHK: 0583announcementsnews) of voting in the 2011-12 legislative year found that the party’s support for the government has dwindled steadily. Of the 82 bills and amendments tabled by the government during this period, the Liberals voted for fewer than half – 46.2 per cent – down from 76.2 per cent of the 18 pieces of government-sponsored legislation tabled in 2008-9, the first year of the previous administration’s four-year term.

According to Miriam Lau Kin-yee, the party’s chairwoman and a lawmaker representing the transport functional constituency, the government seemed to think it could take the Liberals’ support for granted.

“They seldom communicate with us … as if a pro-business party should be supporting the government all the time,” said Lau.

“I think government officials have treated us to dinner once a year for the past few years, and that was the extent of the communication. On the contrary, the officials frequently host seafood dinners in Lei Yue Mun for the Democrats.”

The decline in the Liberal Party’s support for the government was also apparent when compared with the other Beijing loyalists’ high approval rates for government bills. The Federation of Trade Union (FTU) was the most dependable, with its four lawmakers on average supporting 82 per cent of the administration-sponsored legislation. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) came next, with an average of 80.2 per cent of support from its nine voting lawmakers – the party’s chairman, Legco president Tsang Yok-sing, does not vote in the council.

The four lawmakers of the trade-based Economic Synergy, which was formed in June 2009 by lawmakers who broke away from the Liberals the previous year, also voted for the government’s legislation with the same frequency as the FTU and DAB.

The Liberals’ support rate for the government was even lower than that of the pro-democrats, with the Democratic Party recording 71.5 per cent and the Civic Party 69.5 per cent of support for government legislation in 2011-12. During this period, the government accelerated the passage of bills, to prevent them from lapsing before the next legislative term, which starts in October.

Critics say the watershed for Liberals came during the campaign for the chief executive election, which split the pro-establishment camp. Some of the bloc’s members backed Henry Tang Ying-yen, the former chief secretary, and presumed front runner, while others opted for Leung Chun-ying, the former Exco convenor who was initially seen as having only an outside chance in the Election Committee poll, which he eventually won on March 25.

Lau said the government should have stopped taking their loyalty for granted long before Tang’s disastrous campaign. She also urged officials to change their mindset when assuming they had the allegiance of its business allies and be more proactive in lobbying for lawmakers’ support in policies.

“Business groups and parties may not necessarily be government-loyal,” said Lau. “We now make our voting decisions by scrutinising every single issue. We vote for the right policies and oppose the wrong ones.”

The proposed anti-monopoly law is a case in point, according to Lau, who along with Tommy Cheung Yu-yan(the lawmaker representing the catering functional constituency) and Vincent Fang Kang (wholesale and retail), accounted for the Liberals’ three lawmakers in the previous, 60-seat Legco.

“We abstained in the voting on the competition law because we felt it could not curb anti-competitive business giants but would suffocate small enterprises,” said Lau, one of the five lawmakers who abstained from voting on the bill, which was still passed in June. Along with Lau, radical pan-democrats Leung Kwok-hung, Wong Yuk-man and Albert Chan Wai-yip, and industrial lawmaker Lam Tai-fai also abstained.

The business sector had been strongly opposed to the competition law, but after two rounds of concessions – including raising prosecution thresholds and lowering penalties – enough lawmakers were persuaded to support it, including the Economic Synergy.

“The officials may be paying greater effort to appeal for their [Economic Synergy’s] support, instead of us, because they have four people but we have only three,” said Lau of her former fellow Liberals, who include Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung and Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen. Lam and Leung left the Liberal Party in 2008 after it lost both of its geographical seats and one of its eight functional constituency seats in the Legco election.

Adding to the Liberals’ detachment from the city’s government was their apparent marginalisation by Beijing, according to founding chairman Allen Lee Peng-fei, a former delegate to the National People’s Congress and former lawmaker.

“[The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office’s director] Wang Guangya even invited the one-man New People’s Party but ignored the three-member Liberal Party when he needed to canvass for support for Leung Chun-ying,” said Lee, referring to the successful campaign to elect Leung as the new chief executive. Lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, chairwoman of the New People’s Party, reportedly attended that meeting.

Lee said Beijing no longer saw the Liberal Party – which aimed to be “centrist, leaning to the political right” when he co-founded it 19 years ago – as a reliable source of support.

“Since the party’s U-turn in 2003 over the Basic Law’s Article 23 legislation Beijing no longer counts on it,” said Lee, who has since resigned.

Lee was referring to the decision in 2003 of the party’s chairman, James Tien Pei-chun, to resign from the Executive Council, forcing the government to shelve the controversial national security legislation that had triggered a 500,000-strong protest march. Party vice-chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee was later appointed to fill Tien’s seat.

Tien’s last-minute U-turn won him a Legco geographical seat in 2004. He was defeated in 2008 and is seeking a comeback in the Legco election to be held on September 9.

Lee said the Liberal Party was “doomed” in next month’s election because it was losing influence in the pro-establishment camp while failing to win the support of the public.

“It was meaningless to tell the public ‘we support the policies which are worth supporting’,” said Cheung, referring to the comments made by Miriam Lau. “You have to make it clear to Hongkongers what you can do for them.”

The low percentage of support for the government bills and amendments could also be the result of lawmakers’ apparent strong reluctance to cast a ballot. For example, finance sector lawmaker David Li Kwok-po voted for only 11 per cent of the items tabled by the administration as he skipped 87.8 per cent of the government votes.

Li, who announced he was not standing for Legco again, was also the most reluctant voter in Legco overall, having skipped 88 per cent of the 210 votes, including members’ motions. The more than 1,300 items stemming from filibuster attempts were not included in the analysis.

But the Liberals skipped 51.8 per cent of the votes among the government-sponsored pieces, more than their overall blank-vote rate of 42.7 per cent.

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said the Liberals’ influence would continue to wane under Leung’s administration.

“It used to be a part of the government coalition when it still had representatives on Exco,” said Choy.

“But after the split which led to the formation of Economic Synergy in 2009 it was already another story. As the party gave its hard-core support to Henry Tang in the chief executive election, it is almost impossible that its relationship with the government will improve.”

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