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SCMA's remarks at Hong Kong Democratic Foundation luncheon (English only)

    The Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs, Mr Stephen Lam, attended a luncheon organised by the Hong Kong Democratic Foundation this afternoon (September 3) to introduce the Green Paper on Constitutional Development and to listen to the views of the participants. Following is the summary of the main points he made:

* Over the course of the last 25 years, Hong Kong has gone past a few major milestones in constitutional development and is now in a position to build consensus for attaining the ultimate goal of universal suffrage in accordance with the Basic Law.

* Firstly, in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration provided a foundation for guaranteeing Hong Kong's future under the concept of "One Country, Two Systems".

* Secondly, soon after that, we embarked on introducing democracy through partial elections to the former Legislative Council (Legco).

* Thirdly, in 1990, the Basic Law was enacted. This was implemented with effect from July 1, 1997. On that day, Hong Kong achieved a smooth transition with all the essential systems which guaranteed Hong Kong's success preserved.

* This was no small achievement, bearing in mind the fact that during the transition to 1997, many people in Hong Kong and others around the world had cast doubts on the viability of "One Country, Two Systems".

* Not only had we transformed that concept in reality, in the course of preparing for the transition, we had also put in place institutions which would lead us towards achieving the ultimate aim of universal suffrage.

* These institutions include:

i) Firstly, the rule of law based on the common law system and the power of final adjudication being exercised in Hong Kong through the Court of Final Appeal;

ii) Secondly, constitutional and statutory guarantees for human rights in Hong Kong, through Article 39 of the Basic Law and the enactment of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance;

iii) Thirdly, strengthening the transparency and accountability of the HKSAR Government through the adoption of a Political Appointment System, whereby all Government Secretaries serve as Members of the Executive Council coterminous with the Chief Executive who nominates them. Henceforth, the principal officials are in a position to be held politically accountable with regard to their policy portfolios.

* By now, 10 years after the handover in 1997, we are in a position to embark on building consensus in the Hong Kong community to attain the ultimate aim of universal suffrage.

* During his election campaign, the Chief Executive, Mr Donald Tsang, made a clear undertaking that the third-term HKSAR Government would endeavour to resolve the question of universal suffrage in the next five years. The fact that the Government had issued the Green Paper on Constitutional Development 11 days after inauguration underlined its commitment to resolve the issue of universal suffrage within the five-year term.

* In the process of attaining universal suffrage and in designing a model for implementing universal suffrage, we must ensure that the basic policies of the State regarding Hong Kong and the four principles on constitutional development under the Basic Law could be fully implemented. These include: firstly, meeting the interests of different sectors of society; secondly, facilitating the development of the capitalist economy; thirdly, gradual and orderly progress; and fourthly, developments being appropriate to the actual situation in the HKSAR.

* Hong Kong will have universal suffrage because of the Basic Law, not the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

* This is because in 1976 when the ICCPR was applied to Hong Kong, a reservation on Article 25(b) had been made for it not to be applied to Hong Kong. In accordance with the notification given by the Central People's Government to the United Nations Secretary-General in 1996 and Article 39 of the Basic Law, this reservation continues to apply.

* However, in 1990 when the Basic Law was enacted, the Central Authorities responded to the views of the Hong Kong community and stipulated universal suffrage as the ultimate aim to be attained. Therefore, the attaining of universal suffrage originates from the Basic Law, and it is not because of the fact that the ICCPR is applicable to Hong Kong.

* In attaining universal suffrage, we would act according to certain objective requirements and the constitutional framework. By constitutional design of the Basic Law, any change to our electoral system requires consensus among the three parties concerned, i.e. two-thirds majority support in the Legco, consent of the Chief Executive, and endorsement by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. The Government also hopes that any proposal for implementing universal suffrage receives majority public support. Universities and think-tanks have been conducting independent opinion polls. The Government will track the level of public support for various proposals closely.

* On the options, roadmap and timetable outlined in the Green Paper, the Government has been very open in setting out all the key issues and has not taken a view on them.

* Options for the universal suffrage timetable include: 2012, 2017 or beyond 2017 for the Chief Executive; and 2012, 2016 or beyond 2016 for Legco.

* Options for the composition and size of the nominating committee for the Chief Executive election include: forming the nominating committee by less than 800 members; forming the nominating committee by 800 members; and forming the nominating committee by more than 800 members, for example, 1,200 or 1,600 members.

* Options for the nuber of candidates to be put forth for Chief Executive election by the public include: 10 candidates or more; eight candidates at most; and two to four candidates at most.

* Article 45 of the Basic Law provides that we should establish "a broadly representative nominating committee" to nominate Chief Executive candidates "in accordance with democratic procedures" for universal suffrage election. Many people have focused their attention on what would constitute "democratic procedures".

* At this stage, the community should first strive to agree on the number of candidates which the nominating committee should put forth. The public would then have a clearer idea of the scale of the general election. Thereafter, detailed nomination procedures could be discussed and agreed upon.

* Another key issue is how Legco's Functional Constituency (FC) elections can be replaced. Options for this issue include: replacing the FC seats with district-based seats returned through direct election; retaining the FC seats, but changing the electoral method; and increasing the number of seats representing District Councils in the Legco.

* In discussing the roadmap and timetable for implementing universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legco, the Green Paper has also included suggestions that "universal suffrage for the Chief Executive should precede that for Legco" for the public to discuss.

* Universal suffrage would be achievable once consensus is attained on these key issues. Thereafter, the Government hopes that Hong Kong would no longer need to agonise unceasingly over the issue of constitutional development.

* Candidates standing for the Chief Executive and Legco elections could then focus their manifestos on improvements to the economy, social services and livelihood issues - much in the same way as Western politicians run their election campaigns.

* On further development of the Political Appointment System, aside from the hardware of electoral arrangements, Hong Kong also needs to develop the software of political talent.

* The Government plans to be put forth, later this year, proposals for creating two additional tiers of political appointment. These are the Under-Secretaries who can speak in the legislature for the Government, and Political Assistants who can assist the Policy Secretaries in liaising with different community groups. The system of Permanent Secretaries will stay, and the apolitical civil service will provide administrative continuity.

* The Government is committed to dealing with the issue of universal suffrage to set the course for constitutional development for decades to come. It is important for the community to learn to build consensus in order to achieve this.

* About one million votes were cast for the 2003 District Council elections with a voter turnout rate of 44%, and about 1.7 million votes were cast for the 2004 Legco elections with a voter turnout rate of 55.6%. These record figures demonstrate the rising civic awareness among the Hong Kong community, but there remain two areas where political parties would need to work on to pursue constitutional development.

i) Firstly, the political parties in Hong Kong, in general, have relatively small memberships.

ii) Secondly, political parties need to learn to build consensus with one another on important issues such as constitutional development.

* The failure to reach a consensus on constitutional development in 2005 had already caused Hong Kong to miss an opportunity to achieve greater democracy in 2007 and 2008. Looking ahead, it is hoped that a consensus would eventually be formed among different sectors of the community, so that Hong Kong's democratic system could progress towards universal suffrage according to the Basic Law.

Ends/Monday, September 3, 2007