A matter of opinions

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2005, 12:00am

Are you convinced they are telling the truth when top government figures say they have carefully considered the views of the community via public consultation before reaching a decision on anything, from major developments to wine taxes? If you say no, you would not be alone, in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

The British government has just launched a code of practice for public consultations to avoid the 'lip service' label given to its gauging of public views. And academics, politicians and barristers are calling on the Hong Kong government to follow suit - to transform its methods of gauging public opinion and make the process more transparent and independent.

The Hong Kong government admits that no central body governs how each department and bureau carries out a consultation, nor how the results are collated, analysed or published.

So far this year, the government has launched 18 public consultations into subjects as diverse as the privatisation of the Airport Authority, to duty on wine, to racial discrimination legislation. The exercises are generated by a variety of government departments.

'There's no one set of procedures for these consultations. They are usually done by the bureaus or departments themselves. Some are done by the departments and others hire consultant firms. After they have collected the information, they publish the report. Every department will publish results of every consultation,' a government spokeswoman said.

However, the South China Morning Post reported that the government has failed to publish detailed results of its public consultation into the tax on alcoholic beverages. The only results published were in the annual budget speech by Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, who did not disclose how many people took part, nor how many respondents were in favour of lowering the duty. The status quo remained and tipplers still pay 80 per cent duty on wine, despite two-thirds of the submissions supporting a decrease in the duty.

The government's treatment of petitions, signature campaigns and letter-writing campaigns has frequently come under fire from critics who say that even if a petition contains 1,000 signatures, it's still considered as just one submission.

The government spokeswoman acknowledged that if a department receives several copies of identical letters or petitions signed by many people, it will be considered as one submission, but said it would be 'noted' that several signatures were attached.

How results are published is another bone of contention. Some are published online or handed out as hard copies at district offices, or presented at Legislative Council.

Chan Kin-man, professor at the Chinese University's Department of Sociology, along with fellow academic Robert Chung Ting-yiu, investigated the government's handling of its public consultation into the controversial Article 23 national security bill in 2003, and came up with a very different interpretation of the results.

'The conclusion did not represent the public view. There were 100,000 public submissions. The government concluded that most people supported the enactment of the bill. We found this to be a very misguided conclusion.

'After we looked at the 100,000 submissions, we found that most people just in principle accepted that having a national security bill is acceptable, but there were a lot of problems in the present form of the bill that the public did not find acceptable. The government did not tell the whole story,' said Professor Chan.

Professor Chan said pre-printed forms supporting the enactment of the bill were counted as individual submissions, while petitions with hundreds of signatures were treated as one submission. The Article 23 consultation drew 100,909 submissions, including 369,612 individuals and 1,000 organisations.

He believed that while the government may not be legally obliged to publish the results of a public consultation, it had an ethical duty to do so, adding that the government needed to outline its methodology of carrying out public consultations before it even invited submissions.

Legislator Raymond Ho Chung-tai said government departments would find it difficult to introduce a single approach to its consultations, because of the wide variety of consultations carried out in Hong Kong and the methods used. He said the government did not just rely on written submissions when taking into account public views.

'They hold seminars the public can attend. In some cases, they might invite representatives from a specific sector. They may go to the district councils, or they may appear before Legco, that's also part of a consultation,' Mr Ho said.

'You have to look at every single case on its own merits, whether or not you consider the exercise sufficient to reflect public views, whether it is a real public consultation exercise or something they have done just to say they have done it. If it is not thorough, you have to say so.

'The consultation results aren't supposed to be confidential, they're not restricted information. Anyone should have the right to ask for the details, or at least an outline. That's why we often ask at Legco for more details.'

Philip Dykes, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said: 'In Britain, the cabinet office has recently revised its consultation guidelines for all government departments. It's illuminating to see how they structure consultations, who they consult, how long they give for consultations and what they do with the results.' The guidelines were launched in Britain last month.

Similar guidelines for public consultations do not appear to be in force in Hong Kong, an omission which draws fire from several critics, including legislator and lawyer Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee. 'The government used to have a standard for public consultations - it was fairness, objectivity and openness,' she said. 'You have to tell the people beforehand what you are consulting them on. You have to follow a stated methodology in consultations. There's a lot of criticism about the way the government does consultations. If you use very rough-and-ready methods which are not acceptable as a form of professional standard, you need to state that. You don't pick and choose the results you want to show. In Hong Kong, public consultations are particularly important because you don't have a democratic system.'

Paul Harris, associate professor of politics at Lingnan University, described Hong Kong's consultation process as 'a sham' which limited people's choices and was used as a means to lend support to government proposals and policies, rather than as a genuine consultative process. 'It's a poor substitute for genuine consultations. When they receive these consultations, the input from the public, they measure them based on what they asked the public to provide,' he said.

Professor Harris sits on the Hong Kong Political Science Association board, which recently submitted findings on views on universal suffrage. 'I think we have wasted our time. The vast majority of respondents want universal suffrage immediately. The government has ruled that out. We can predict that those submissions will not be accepted, they will be binned figuratively, if not literally, because they do not fit the government's criteria.'

He said the government used these exercises 'to exclude the fringe, what it perceives to be a radical perspective'.

'Take West Kowloon, for instance. They can tell us 'we are interested in your view as long as it includes a canopy', so people whose view is there should be no canopy, those submissions would automatically be rejected.'

He said petitions and e-mails to politicians were not counted in public consultations. 'It sounds silly, but these are bureaucrats. If they think you put some work into it, they'll consider it worthwhile. If you have a five-page, single-spaced letter with complicated arguments and footnotes, they will take it seriously and they will count it.

'It belies a certain contempt for the Hong Kong people and a level of unwillingness to face the reality that people want more choice ... I think the consultations generally are an insult.'

Paul Zimmerman, convenor of Designing Hong Kong Harbour, has a lot of experience dealing with the government's public consultative process. As a long-time supporter of sustainable development and a member of the Harbour Enhancement Committee, he said he had encountered the frustrations of submitting views that were repeatedly misinterpreted or ignored.

'The basic issue is lack of transparency and independence of the process. We saw that with the public consultation into the use of Kai Tak. A lot of people suggested government offices should go into the Kai Tak area. At some stage in the process that was taken out, and the administration allocated Tamar as government offices. That suggestion disappeared from the design process.'

Mr Zimmerman said the government should appoint an independent body, for example a university, to analyse submissions received in public consultation exercises.