More important than politics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 September, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 September, 2004, 12:00am

While the community is still coming to terms with the outcome of Sunday's Legislative Council election, with some winners and losers bickering over who might have let who down, and where and why some ballot papers might have been misplaced, the business of government has resumed in earnest this week.

Thursday morning saw Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa announcing that the government had no plans to retable the national security bill. In the afternoon, the MTR Corporation and the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation jointly announced that they had submitted a report to the government on merging the two entities.

The Home Affairs Bureau held a press conference to release a much-awaited consultation paper on introducing a law to ban racial discrimination.

The sequence of events was clearly not a coincidence. For two months, the machinery of government slowed down as Legco went into summer recess and officials went on holiday. The summer months are traditionally a period in which no new policy proposals are announced. This year, the lull was kept alive by the Legco election campaign, but that was one more reason for the government to refrain from raising any controversial issues.

With the polls over, what needs to be done, has to be done. But what should be the government's priorities? Mr Tung's statement that economic recovery and restructuring was his primary concern has put an end to speculation that he might try to use the support of the enlarged pro-government voting bloc in Legco to make another push to pass the anti-subversion and anti-sedition bill, as required under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

One could interpret the arrangements on Thursday as sending a clear message to the community that the government does not want to be bogged down by politics again. They were also a subtle reminder to our newly elected legislators that while they might have been elected on the basis of their stance on political issues, much of Legco's business is about livelihood matters.

Announcing the submission of their merger report, the heads of the two railway companies made a point of stressing that they expected synergy unleashed by the merger to deliver lower fares. That should please our politicians, many of whom had put lower public transport fares as a top concern in their platforms.

Indeed, that was also billed as a key objective of the merger by Secretary for the Environment, Transport and Works Sarah Liao Sau-tung. The public now eagerly awaits the outcome of the merger to see by how much fares could fall. While the reductions will be measured in cents, and hopefully dollars, what is at stake is the credibility of the administration in addressing a key concern of the masses.

By comparison, the stakes over the anti-racial discrimination law are seemingly lower, but its implications are arguably far more significant. Race is a sensitive issue in Hong Kong, a post-colonial Chinese society with a substantial non-Chinese population. Under the 'right' circumstances, both Chinese and non-Chinese could be victims of racial discrimination.

Low rail fares would make people feel better about the government, and an anti-racial discrimination law would improve Hong Kong's international image. Handled well, they should help the government accumulate political capital to deal with a major political issue that it cannot avoid - a renewed push by the pro-democracy camp to elect by universal suffrage the chief executive and all legislators in 2007 and 2008 respectively.

C. K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy