The experience has taught Tam that a combination of green advocacy and localist values is a better platform for winning votes than a purely environmental
one. However, while being a member of a political party means Tam may be more effective in council meetings, the flip side is he has to concern himself with voters who care about more than just the environment. As a party member, Tam says he cannot go as far on environmental issues as he could as the founder of a green group.
His influence as a district councillor is also limited by the limitations of the district councils, which are only advisory bodies without financial autonomy and policy making powers.
However, there are some advantages to being a councillor. Tam has only been in office for a few months but he already receives greater attention from the government. Various government departments will reply to him more quickly when he submits questions, and their attitude towards him is more respectful than it was when he was just an environmentalist.
Tam will not be drawn on any plans to stand in the Legislative Council elections in September but he believes legislators can play an important role in pushing a green agenda.
“Of course the Legislature cannot do work as down-to-earth as the district council,” he explains, “but at least it can stop detrimental projects through means like filibustering.”
But sitting legislator Cyd Ho Sau-lan is more sanguine about the extent to which lawmakers can influence the government. She is an active member of the Panel on Environmental Affairs and has chaired many of the panel’s subcommittees, such as the Subcommittee on Issues Relating to Air, Noise and Light Pollution.
In January, Secretary for the Environment Wong Kam-sing launched the first- ever Charter on External Lighting to reduce light pollution. But Ho is disappointed to have a voluntary charter rather than binding legislation.
She says the subcommittee spent seven years deliberating over the problem of light pollution – a problem that affects not only the environment, but also the well-being of local residents. Yet up till now there are no laws to restrict the size of billboards that block views and cause ventilation problems.
Ho says it is difficult to pass environmental policies because legislators cannot propose private member’s bills. This is because Article 74 of the Basic Law prohibits them from introducing bills that would affect public expenses, the existing political structure or government operations, unless the Chief Executive provides written consent. Proposals to deal with environmental problems often involve public expenses, which make them a non-starter.
Even if a lawmaker did manage to propose a private member’s bill, the split voting system means the bill would have to garner a majority of votes from both geographical constituency members and functional constituency members in order to pass. In contrast, a government bill just needs a simple majority to pass.
Because of these systemic limits, district and legislative councillors like Roy Tam and Cyd Ho struggle to advance environmental causes through the established political platforms.