Meek civil servant turns into savage adversary

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 May, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 25 May, 1995, 12:00am

YOU wouldn't think, to look at him, that the slightly crumpled Michael Cartland was a man to go straight for the jugular.

And you'd be right.

Colleagues have been known to take a proffered finger and, in one savage, unstoppable attack, chomp their way up the arm, sever the neck and then feast on the eyes, nose and ears for dessert.

The Secretary for Financial Services, however, only bites the hand he's fed.

Now this can, at times, lead to some fairly tedious exchanges. It can lull legislators into a false sense of security. At times, indeed, it can even deprive them of the information they were hoping to elicit.

Henry Tang, for instance, really wanted to know whether the imported labour scheme affected unemployment. He got rather less than he'd bargained for.

He only had himself to blame, of course. He forgot to mention the imported labour scheme in his question.

The Government Census and Statistics Department, he pointed out seemed to be producing rather lower unemployment figures - 2.8 per cent for the first quarter of the year for instance - than the 9.5 per cent thrown up by a survey by the Federation of Trade Unions (FTU).

So would the Government please inform legislators about its survey methods and whether its figures truly reflected the labour market situation. Readers of a logical bent might have noticed another question Mr Tang forgot to ask. But more of that later.

Mr Cartland answered the question put to him: the source of his data was the General Household Survey, conducted on a random sample of 13,500 households a quarter, with a response rate of 95 per cent. And, yes, it should reflect the real situation on the labour market.

Lee Cheuk-yan had another go. Did his figures cover 1) people wanting full-time jobs but only finding part-time work; 2) people who couldn't find work and became housewives instead; 3) and illegal hawkers? If not, he suggested, maybe it would explain why government statistics were so low.

Mr Cartland stuck to the question: 1) Certainly.

2) Yes. They included housewives, 'dealt with in the same way as normal persons'.

Quite what he meant by setting off so much incensed wiggling of the brows and rolling of the eyes among the female legislators present, we did not have much time to consider.

Because then came the first killer chomp.

As for 3), said Mr Cartland, showing his teeth, it was difficult to show if hawkers were hawking legally or illegally. He suspected it would be difficult to design a question to elicit that information.

Mr Lee retired, mortally wounded.

Finally, Howard Young asked the question Mr Tang forgot: Were the FTU's figures calculated on a different basis? Mr Cartland smelled blood at last.

The Government's figures, he said, covered the entire population and represented the totality of the workforce.

The FTU's covered only the 200,000-odd members of the FTU, brought a 43 per cent response rate and over-concentrated on certain sectors while under-representing others.

'Is this true?' Allen Lee demanded of FTU representative Tam Yiu-chung. Mr Tam nodded sheepishly.

Mr Lee threw his hands in the air in disgust. Lee Cheuk-yan, the workers' friend, collapsed further in his chair and twitched.

Mr Cartland went for the coup de grace.

'What can be said about the FTU's figures,' he said fiercely, 'is that they do show what would happen if once every three months you made 2,800 phone-calls to members of the FTU and got a 43 per cent response.' Mr Tam's scalp could still just be seen protruding from his bloodied jaws.