Passing the hot potato

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 November, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 November, 1993, 12:00am

IT WAS the job no one would touch. For the past month, instructions to find a way of renewing controversial Public Affairs Adviser John Elliott's contract - preferably without running the gauntlet of seeking approval from legislators - have been hurtling around government like a hot potato.

Acting Secretary for the Civil Service Stuart Harbinson refused to get involved, arguing Mr Elliott was employed as a consultant rather than civil servant, a trick that has avoided the matter facing the scrutiny of the Legislative Council's Finance Committee.

Information Co-ordinator Mike Hanson, whose predecessor hired the former Financial Times journalist on a three-year contract which ends next September, did not handle the matter either, since Mr Elliott has declined to be a part of his ever-expanding information empire.

But Director of Administration Nicholas Ng Wing-fui was unable to totally avoid the issue, since the $4.7 million contract is part of his budget. Instead, he passed it on, by asking Finance Branch for advice.

Officials there declined to elaborate. ''Finance Branch is always asked to comment on proposals with financial implications, but it is for the departments concerned to take action on the advice we give as they see fit,'' said Principal Assistant Financial Secretary Mike Rowse.

But it is understood they warned that extending Mr Elliott's contract by more than another year would take the total cost over the financial limit the Government can approve on its own - and so finally put the matter into the lap of the Finance Committee.

With legislators still fuming at having been bypassed over Mr Elliott's original appointment, and independent councillor Emily Lau Wai-hing already having tabled a question asking if the contract will be renewed, that idea died a swift death.

Now, even Sir David Ford, who gave the original order for renewal, has indicated the matter has been put on ice. ''I think you should talk to the new Chief Secretary about that,'' he said. ''It's way into the future as far as I'm concerned.'' His successor, Anson Chan Fang On-sang, is understood to have been involved in the decision to renew the contract.

Mr Elliott, who works mostly on airport public relations, yesterday professed to be bemused by the whole affair. ''I always said I would carry on doing the job as long as there is a job to do. The need for this kind of work will continue until the [airport] programme finishes.'' Legislators were less amused. ''If this comes to the Finance Committee we will certainly ask a lot of tough questions,'' said Ms Lau.