Democrats, practise what you preach

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 August, 2005, 12:00am

Democratic Party lawmaker James To Kun-sun's fresh apology for charging the public purse inflated rent for an office without disclosing that he co-owned it does nothing for his or the party's credibility. The party demands transparency and accountability for government officials from the chief executive down. The rent scandal leaves it open to suspicion of tawdry double standards.

During September's Legislative Council election campaign it was revealed that the party had rented the Shamshuipo office from a company in which Mr To had an interest.

An internal party inquiry found that the rent was 'substantially in excess' of two independent market assessments, and said Mr To had agreed to return $135,900. But party chairman Lee Wing-tat said no action would be taken against Mr To - oddly, because he had declined an opportunity to put his side of the story to the investigation panel. The report did not question his integrity. Rejecting calls from the public for his resignation, Mr To apologised but shifted part of the blame to the party.

Given the closed inquiry and lack of transparency, it is not surprising the scandal haunts the Democrats. Last week, the party's central committee rejected calls for Mr To and the party leadership to resign. On Friday, Mr To tried to take the heat off the leadership by making a fresh public apology, in which he shouldered the 'greatest responsibility' for 'serious administrative negligence'. He acknowledged that his refusal to appear before the inquiry was a mistake but continued to insist his integrity was not under a cloud.

It is not good enough. The issue is not so much whether Mr To has done something wrong. He has been cleared of any criminal offence or serious misconduct by investigations by the Independent Commission Against Corruption and a Legco committee.

The issue is the party's credibility as a self-appointed watchdog on the government's exercise of power. Its uncompromising and aggressive style in holding officials to account for their actions has turned into a double-edged sword.

Examples of its zeal for accountability include its role in forcing the resignation of former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung over his purchase of a car ahead of a budget that he knew would raise the sales tax. More recently, the party pushed the government and Sun Hung Kai Properties for more details on the record sale of a luxury flat in The Arch development in West Kowloon, saying the transparency of internal property sales had to be increased.

When Mr Lee ran against Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in last month's chief election, without any chance of success, party vice-chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan portrayed it as political sacrifice for public principle. He said it would inject greater transparency and accountability into the process and open up public debate.

It is hard to imagine the Democrats being satisfied with what they are now asking the public to accept. It is not surprising Mr Lee has been forced to dismiss rumours that pressure for the leadership to resign is coming from within the party.

Mr To explained his failure to attend meetings of the investigation panel as due to 'problems of communications and time arrangements'. Given that he has since felt compelled to apologise twice over his role in the rent affair, this now sounds like an unconvincing excuse. It would seem he had a responsibility to the party to make himself available to answer questions.

He has pointed out that he ran for re-election during the controversy and the voters stuck with him. But to this day the people still do not know the full facts.

If the Democrats want to be seen as the party standing for transparency and openness, they themselves have to be seen to be practising it. It is not too late to do so in this case. If there was nothing improper, why not have an open inquiry?