Catch 22

Every year, the government pronounces upon its ambitious agenda of new and amended legislation for the upcoming year in its Policy Address.

But it has become a common perception that some of these pledges might not be fulfilled on time – while some might only materialise years later for a variety of reasons. Despite the constant revamping of the co-ordination mechanism of public bodies in drafting legislation some still fail to be tabled on time, with their quality in doubt.

According to the Policy Address for 2018, 12 bills were to be proposed to the legislature this year, including amendments to the Labour Relations Law, a law on the licensing and operation of hotels, and a revision to an insurance business bill. As at the beginning of the new legislative year starting October 15, however, only one bill has been approved by the Legislative Assembly – namely, a bill concerning the set-up of the municipal body.

“There are definitely problems in the government’s co-ordination mechanism for drafting and motioning legislation,” said Ho Iat Seng, president of the Legislative Assembly. “It has failed to submit the bills as planned on time but handed in other bills that are not on the agenda.”

Meanwhile, the cybersecurity bill, regulations about the registration and qualification of medical professionals, and a law appertaining to the Light Rapid Transit (LRT) railway have been proposed and await their first reading in the legislature. This means that with only some two months left to this year, two-thirds of the bills listed on the government agenda – or eight bills – are still in the draft stage, including a statue on the local security forces, regulations concerning architects, engineers and urban planners, and a part-time labour scheme.

“There are definitely problems in the government’s co-ordination mechanism of drafting and motioning legislation,” said Ho Iat Seng, president of the Legislative Assembly, when recently reviewing the works of the legislature of the past year. “It has failed to submit the bills as planned on time but handed in other bills that are not on the agenda.”

For instance, three bills concerning tax benefits for redevelopment and financial leasing, and the regulations governing financial leasing companies – not on the legislative agenda of the government in the past few years – were tabled earlier this year, given the city’s push for the development of the financial industry and the need to redevelop ancient buildings in the old neighbourhood areas.

Centralised mechanism

“The government should think carefully before putting items on the legislative agenda,” said Mr. Ho. “It should only include items that can realistically be achieved.”

The co-ordination of legislation is a constant struggle for the authorities. Since the beginning of the second five-year term of the Administration led by Chief Executive Fernando Chui Sai On, by end-2014 there has been the establishment of the so-called ‘centralised mechanism for legislation co-ordination’, ensuring the greater participation of legal departments – namely, the Secretariat for Administration and Justice, and the Legal Affairs Bureau – in the drafting of bills by various public bodies.

An internal government guideline apropos the detailed procedures of the centralised co-ordination mechanism came into force in 2016, requiring respective government departments to submit rationale, research data and other relevant information for any new bills they plan to draft.

The mechanism seems to have helped improve the government’s legislative efficiency. The Administration successfully submitted three of six proposed bills in the 2015 legislative agenda to the legislature within the same year, five of eight bills in 2016, and four of five bills in 2017.

But two of the four bills motioned in 2017 were submitted at the last minute; on the 28th December, in fact. Furthermore, officials finally submitted the amended regulations about taxi drivers this year – three years after the bill was listed on the official agenda.

According to the Legal Affairs Bureau, for the remaining eight bills on this year’s agenda the one related to the registration scheme of vessels is at the stage of final discussion, while the other seven bills are in final draft stage. But it is anticipated that there will be some uncertainty concerning the part-time labour regime and subsequent amendments to the labour law, which have to be first discussed in the Standing Committee for the Co-ordination of Social Affairs – a body comprising government officials and representatives of business interests and workers – prior to submission to the legislature for deliberation.

Refined further

Legislator Song Pek Kei has pointed out that some new problems have arisen from the centralised mechanism.

“Given the current number of staff in the Legal Affairs Bureau, they are overwhelmed by the huge workload,” she said. “While they might not finish [drafting the bill] on time, the quality is also in doubt.”

Before the implementation of the centralised mechanism, the co-ordination of drafting bills was overseen by concerned departments and the offices of their responsible Secretaries. The drafting of bills by the government is now divided into three models: drafting by the Legal Affairs Bureau; drafting by a working group comprising the legal bureau and other concerned government departments; and drafting by the concerned government department assisted by the legal bureau.

“Given the current number of staff in the Legal Affairs Bureau, they are overwhelmed by the huge workload,” said legislator Song Pek Kei. “While they might not finish [drafting bills] on time, the quality is also in doubt.”

In a bid to further enhance the efficiency and quality of the bills, Ms. Song suggested the centralised mechanism be further ameliorated: the Legal Affairs Bureau to be continuously in charge of the co-ordination of major bills, while the co-ordination work of minor bills be returned to the concerned departments and their overseeing Secretaries.

 “Although the government says in the Policy Address every year that it will improve the efficiency of drafting bills, the progress has so far [been unsatisfactory],” said legislator Ho Ion Sang. Seven of the 15 bills that the government submitted to the legislature in 2017 were actually listed in official agendas in the 2014-2016 period, he said by way of illustration, meaning the drafting of those bills have been delayed from months to years.

“The city’s legal regime cannot catch up with its socio-economic development,” he added.

As the Administration proposed in the Policy Address for 2017 that there would be 25 major bills to be motioned in 2018 and 2019, the lawmaker is concerned about how many bills could successfully pass, when only four of 25 bills have so far been proposed to the legislature. Mr. Ho suggested authorities prioritise the tabling of bills that greatly affect the livelihood of residents.

Having served his first year as legislator, Sulu Sou Ka Hou believes the government has a “double standard” concerning legislation.

“For the bills that residents are concerned about, such as affordable housing, plastic bag tariff and consumer protection rights, progress is slow,” the pan-democrat laments. “For the bills that the government attaches importance to like the set-up of the municipal organ, progress is much quicker.”

Only one

Of the 28 bills the Legislative Assembly accepted in the last legislative year, only one was initiated by a lawmaker, while the others were all proposed by the Administration.

The only legislator-initiated bill was the trade union law, proposed by legislator José Pereira Coutinho. Unlike the usual overwhelming approval for government-initiated bills, however, the proposed trade union bill was turned down in the legislature with 12 consents and 15 nays.

It was the ninth time the trade union law proposal, always initiated by lawmakers, had been rejected by the legislature – dominated by businessmen and commercial interests – since the establishment of the Macau Special Administrative Region in 1999.

In the past four-year legislative term ending October 2017, the legislature accepted 51 motions proposed by the government and 21 motions from legislators. Compared with the fact that all the government-initiated bills were approved by the legislature over the four years, only two lawmaker-initiated motions were greenlighted in the same period; namely, improving the structure and perks of legislature staff and another bill about amendments to the rental law.

Pan-democrat legislator Sulu Sou Ka Hou highlighted that lawmakers have “limited power” to initiate any bill under the current political system. Although the city’s regulations allow legislators to propose bills or amend laws, approval from the Chief Executive is required if the bill or revision is regarded as falling within the scope of the governance of administration.

For instance, Mr. Sou proposed amending the assembly and demonstration law initiated by the government this year, but the request was turned down as the revision is deemed to require approval from the city’s principal official.

“The Legislative Assembly is partly elected by popular vote and should make good use of its legislative power in the representation of residents,” said Mr. Sou. “But . . . in reality legislators cannot even propose changes to a government-initiated bill.”