A Sense Of Proportion

"You can always rely on the Americans to do the right thing," Winston Churchill is famously quoted as saying "once they have exhausted every other possibility."

On this premise, we might well award Minister for Constitutional Affairs Stephen Lam honorary American citizenship. In the proposed arrangements for electing the five new Functional Constituency Members of LegCo, the whole of Hong Kong is to be treated as a single constituency. The five District Council candidates who gain the most votes from the general public (minus those electors with an existing FC vote, of course) will be elected.

This must surely be right.

The alternative arrangement that some have suggested - of sticking with the five large geographic constituencies and electing one from each - could give all five seats to one political grouping which had a narrow overall majority of not much above 50%. Perfect if you are from that grouping, but not by any proper definition democratic.

Having finally put a foot right after many years of under or even non achievement, the Constitutional Affairs Bureau should now be pushed to apply their new formulation more widely.

There are many different methods of electing legislatures and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Our challenge is to find the one most suitable for Hong Kong's circumstances.

We should surely begin from first principles and agree two things: that all votes should count, and all votes should count equally. Our present system does not achieve either of these objectives.

Having five separate multi-seat constituencies for the directly elected seats means that in practice at every election tens of thousands of votes are completely wasted (i.e. they don't count at all) and some votes carry a disproportionate weight. Others are undervalued. Huge amounts of energy are wasted by the major parties juggling tickets to try to secure maximum advantage and squeeze out an extra seat for themselves.

Yet there is an election system - which the Bureau concerned has now discovered, albeit belatedly but better late than never -- which overcomes all these problems. It is called proportional representation. Let us for the direct election of the 35 Members treat the whole of Hong Kong as a single constituency and award seats to the political groupings in accordance with the total number of votes they obtain. In that way every vote will count and every vote will count equally.

There is really only one valid objection to a completely PR system, and that is the loss of a direct connection between the electorate and a visible representative with local links. But fortunately there are ways to surmount this problem also, by combining "first past the post" with proportional representation.

At the District level, we have already divided Hong Kong into 18 roughly equal bites. Let us run traditional elections and return automatically as a winner the top vote getter in each. By taking the total number of votes cast, and dividing by the total number of seats to be directly elected we can work out the "price" for each seat in terms of the number of votes. For those elected with fewer than that number of votes, their party must make up the difference with surplus votes from other constituencies (e.g. from their unsuccessful candidates). Those who got more than that number will have a surplus to hand on to other candidates from their party. Votes left over at the end of this reconciliation can be used to "buy" additional seats at the set price.

The situation with respect to Independents and minor parties can easily be dealt with.

The proposed system - combining the best elements of "first past the post" and proportional representation - will bring a degree of stability to our legislature. There will probably be a degree of consolidation as smaller parties will be tempted to tie up with the nearest compatible larger one. And the change in the balance of representation from one LegCo to another will probably be modest as there will likely be only minor shifts of allegiance from one election to another. So the DAB and Democratic Party in particular will always have a significant but not overwhelming presence. The Chief Executive of the day will have to form a viable coalition to get things done, but that is as it should be.

So, real democracy within a stable framework. Sounds ideal. If only we can persuade the Constitutional Affairs Bureau to have the courage of its own convictions.

Mike Rowse
email: mike@rowse.com.hk