Tung needs more than platitudes of blame

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 October, 1998, 12:00am

Today is a day in which the Hong Kong Government is meant to fill a vacuum. Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa is to make a big policy speech, which implies that at least it's now been decided who sets policy.

It has been far from certain so far. There is the Anson Chan school of thought that setting policy is the job of the civil service with the Executive and Legislative Councils left to say 'Yeah' or 'Nay'.

Exco also wants the honour while Legco assumes that its democratic credentials give it the policy-making rights with Exco and the civil service bowing in assent.

Legco's claim might carry the greatest weight with most voters were it not so absorbed in its own rights and privileges that people know much more of what its elected members are against than what they are for, Christine Loh excepted.

Thus the vacuum. What has represented itself as government policy since the handover to the mainland last year has amounted to little more than saying 'we are good people, we have good intentions, we don't like speculators, we're going to build lots of housing and, oh yes, we have big reserves'.

Where these thoughts are graced with a name it has not yet progressed from the decades-old one of 'positive non-interventionism', a term which connotes a prudent government that likes free markets.

But how much does it like them when it has not privatised a single government corporation during an era when even socialist governments around the world are returning to the private sector those activities which are better suited to it? The Kowloon Canton Railway, the Mass Transit Railway, the Water Authority, the Provisional Airport Authority and, most of all, the Housing Authority, still remain firmly in government hands.

Hardly a month goes by without the Government meddling in the property market to push prices where it wants them at the time. Not a single bus, taxi, ferry or tram fare can be adjusted without the Government's approval. Even wages for maids are set by officialdom. What free market is this? As for prudence, how prudent is it to base revenues heavily on an extremely volatile income base from property and then fix expenditures heavily on a massive housing programme which was announced without public debate and which will sink public finances into deep deficit if the present financial environment continues to be disregarded? Australia, in a hard-fought election, has just tackled head-on the question of stabilising government finances with sales taxes, a route to which public administration is leaning around the world. But the only thing Hong Kong appears to have taken on board from this watershed debate is satisfaction that voters rejected a racist politician in a sideshow.

The fact is most top jobs in the Hong Kong Government are held by people who would ordinarily have another 10 years or so of plugging away in more junior positions to refine their judgment before reaching the top of the ladder. The handover last year propelled them to the top before many of them learned to resist the temptation to push all the buttons and pull all the levers.

As a result, we truly have the principle of one country, two systems in place - capitalism in the mainland and a command economy in Hong Kong.

If Mr Tung is truly to make his remarks today a speech to remember, then it will not be one in which the latest version of long-term policy is handed down for the umpteenth time. Things have not gone well in public policy-making. This is an occasion to ask why and, more particularly, to ask the people of Hong Kong why. It is an occasion to start a belated public debate on a change of direction.

But if he continues to attribute our troubles only to troubles elsewhere in Asia and to offer solutions little different from those he has so far offered, then he is likely to be greeted with just another yawn and will have some reason to be happy that he has his big foreign reserves to stave off foreign pessimism.

He may begin to need them in that case.