Justify the expense of political posts

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


Hundreds of applications were received for the lower two tiers of the government's ministerial system - undersecretary and political assistant. Among the aspirants are people with top credentials, amply qualified to add talent and knowledge to the incoming administration of Leung Chun-ying. But while they have applied for a position and have an idea what it pays, they are not so certain about what they will be expected to do. More importantly, the people to whom they ultimately answer - Hong Kong's citizens - are equally unclear about their roles.

Tellingly, those who have held these positions since they were created four years ago remain faceless and nameless to the vast majority of people. Recognition is so low that in 2010 the University of Hong Kong's public opinion programme stopped conducting surveys gauging the public's familiarity with them. The political assistants are so little known that, as Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-yuen recently related, some lawmakers have not been taking their phone calls. Understandably, the monthly salary for the next batch has been slashed to no more than HK$100,000, from between HK$134,000 and HK$164,000 now. The Executive Council has approved a pay rise for undersecretaries to HK$225,582 - an amount decided upon without debate as to whether they were worth it.

Leung has a vision for his administration that, apart from increasing the number of policy bureaus from 12 to 14 and creating deputy posts for the chief and financial secretaries, also involves enlarging the political assistant system. Instead of appointing nine as at present, there could be as many as 30 or 40, with bureaus being allocated budgets for appointments rather than being assigned a specific number. Their role is likely to change, being less about serving policy secretaries and helping with lobbying, as was determined in 2008, to an emphasis on reaching out to various sectors of society. Whether this will help Hong Kong, or is what we want or need, is not known.

The ministerial system will be a decade old next month. It was introduced with the declared aim of improving governance and accountability. When it was expanded, we were told it would strengthen the system and groom political talent to help prepare for universal suffrage. It has failed in its objectives - it seems likely that few, if any, of the incumbents will be returning to government.

We are at a crossroads - the political appointee system either needs to be scrapped or improved. Tens of millions of dollars has been spent on politically educating a few handfuls of citizens for uncertain benefit. With the chief executive to be popularly elected in 2017, we have to decide what we want. Leung's administration has to lead the debate, and ensure a critical examination so we get what is best for our city.