Pay before principle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 January, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 January, 1997, 12:00am

Losing a job is like dying. We all hope it will be graceful, or at least painless. All too often it is an ugly mess.

Politicians and top civil servants are not the only people who manage to make a dog's breakfast of this tricky process. They are just the only people who have to do the whole thing in public.

The most entertaining recent example is the dispute which has blown up over severance pay for Legislative Councillors.

The present councillors were elected, at least in theory, to a four-year term. They will actually have served only two years when their terms will be summarily curtailed by the change of sovereignty.

Any heartache this causes will be assuaged by financial provisions which are not modelled on those provided for caddies at the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club. Legislators' return to working for a living will be eased by a lump sum running to about a third of a million dollars.

So far this is not wholly unreasonable. After all in the sort of professions from which legislators tend to come, they can expect to earn this much in a few months - in some cases in a few weeks.

The tricky point is what we do with those who are not actually going to be returned to the real world. A large group have succeeded in riding the through-train which leads, for selected sycophants, to the provisional legislature.

They will not be unemployed. They will lose nothing. The flow of allowances will continue unabated. The severance bonus will be an unjustified windfall.

This situation catches everyone in a tricky position. The official government point of view is that the provisional legislature is illegal. This is not a controversial point. No careful reader of the Basic Law could come to any other conclusion.

If you believe this, then membership of the provisional body does not constitute continuing your career in the Legislative Council. So the Government is obliged to offer the golden farewell to all councillors, including both the political outcasts and the Vicars of Bray.

Logically you may expect the councillors concerned to take the contrary view: that since the provisional legislature is the lineal heir of the old Legco they should not be eligible for severance pay when the old body expires.

Curiously, though, this was not the view which prevailed when the council discussed the matter. Although most council members are also provisionals, the majority view was that everyone was entitled to the end-of-term bonus.

I fear this reinforces the suspicion that sensitivity to matters of principle is not an important qualification for those who are to serve on both bodies.

You cannot help wondering how a council whose members are prepared to adopt such an unscrupulous approach to its own pending retirement can wax so self-righteous about the finer points of Laurence Leung Ming-yin's return to the job market.

Councillors seem to be setting an impossibly unworldly standard for officials, which they have no intention of applying to themselves.

In the real world, as most adults know, it is almost impossible to fire a senior civil servant. Unless he is convicted of a serious crime, the legal requirements are so demanding and the scope for dispute so extensive the manoeuvre is not worth attempting.

Any dissatisfied employer in this situation commonly engages in a sort of tacit bargaining. The deal is that the employee leaves without a struggle and in return the complaints are not mentioned in accounts of his departure.

Some compromise also has to be struck over such matters as periods of notice and entitlements to pensions or severance pay. The whole arrangement is then presented to the world as a voluntary resignation, leaving the reputations of all parties more or less intact.

Having made an arrangement like this, though, the employer is bound to stick to it.

Something of value has been given and received by both sides. If the deal is 'resignation for personal reasons' then that is the explanation we have to repeat to the world.

I suppose in these days of administrative transparency and political paranoia we may have to say this sort of move is no longer possible for our Government. Mysterious resignations lead to curious councillors and the whole thing becomes a circus.

In the old days officials would have provided some muttered off-the-record explanations and the issue would have died.

Now the matter becomes a public plaything. I am not sure this is an improvement.