Equal Opportunities Commission

Lam still stuck in dual-role dilemma

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2012, 12:00am

To stay or not to stay? It should not have been a difficult question for Lam Woon-kwong. But the new convenor of the Executive Council has spent the past two weeks wondering whether his other role as head of the Equal Opportunities Commission would be compromised by his new appointment. Yesterday he came to the conclusion that quitting either job would be irresponsible. He has decided to stay on in the chief executive's cabinet while serving out his term at the anti-discrimination watchdog, which expires in January.

Whichever way Lam decided, the damage had already been done. As the cabinet's chief, he is expected to demonstrate sharp political judgment rather than indecision. To NGOs opposing his Exco appointment, his decision to stay will harm perceptions of the commission's independence. The controversy has, regrettably, undermined the public image of both the new Exco team and the watchdog. His decision not to renew his contract is also a loss to the commission.

Lam is probably right to say there is a remote chance of real conflicts of interest arising from serving in both roles. Exco is the highest policy-making body, with members giving the best advice to the chief executive. The role, therefore, does not appear to contradict the commission's job in enforcing anti-discrimination ordinances. However, cabinet members are expected to defend government policies under the collective responsibility rule. It is hard for the watchdog to be seen as working independently when its leader is considered part of the ruling team. Exco members in colonial days were appointed for their expertise in banking or other areas and were seldom feared to have a conflict of interest. But times have changed.

Lam's rich experience in public service can certainly help Exco's operation. But it should not come at the expense of the commission's perceived independence. Now that he has decided to stay, he has to prove the dual roles are compatible.