District politics an ideal training ground

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am

A unique feature of Hong Kong's political system is that elected politicians do not play a leading role in administering the city. That is especially true at the local level. Our 18 district councils are no more than talking shops responsible for advising government departments on how they can tailor their centrally formulated work plans to suit local needs.

Still, the public takes the elections seriously. Voter turnouts have been relatively high, even though not every one of the 400-plus seats was contested because of a lack of candidates. The government's decision to provide financial aid to candidates from next year is therefore welcome. The move should encourage more people to stand for election.

But if the government wants to lend credibility to its pledge to nurture more political talent, it will have to do a lot more than giving candidates cash.

When the government scrapped the two elected municipal councils in 1999, it promised to empower the district councils. Yet, after a review in 2001, it managed only to give them more money for minor projects and to increase councillors' allowances. A fresh review is now under way. It is important that the exercise will not disappoint again.

An encouraging sign is that Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen has pledged to allow the councils to assume responsibility for libraries, community halls, leisure grounds, sports venues and swimming pools. 'The executive departments will follow the decisions of the district council in managing such facilities, within the limits of their existing statutory powers and resources available,' he said in his first policy address in October. That would be real progress, as it would mean the district councils having a portfolio similar to that of the defunct municipal councils, though not the financial autonomy the latter used to enjoy.

What Mr Tsang has left unsaid is how his vision will be achieved in practice. In this connection, it is interesting to note that two groups, SynergyNet and the Business and Professionals Federation, both feel that the role of district officers should be enhanced. These officers used to be fairly senior in the official hierarchy. They acted as the government's eyes and ears in the districts, and were responsible for co-ordinating the work of different departments at the local level. In his younger days, Mr Tsang was district officer of Sha Tin. Over the past 20 years, however, their role has diminished.

Both SynergyNet and the federation feel that district officers should be empowered and the councils given real decision-making powers to breathe life into district administration. The federation even ventures to suggest that district officers should become a new special grade responsible for exercising the councils' executive responsibilities. These and many other ideas are worthy of careful consideration.

In charting the future of local government, a more macro perspective also needs to be taken. A major argument - but not a convincing one - that the government used in rejecting the calls for a faster pace of democratisation was a dearth of political talent. Officials say elected politicians often advocate populist policies that could lead to disastrous consequences. But what they choose to ignore is that the politicians' allegedly irresponsible behaviour is a product of the system. As it is, our elected councillors are barred from turning their dreams into policies. As they do not have to take responsibility for what they champion, there is little wonder they have asked for the moon.

Presumably, the district councils could be turned into effective training grounds for responsible politics. This could be achieved by giving the councils genuine policymaking powers - and, ideally, real budgets - so councillors could be held directly accountable to the electorates for their decisions. That would be a concrete step towards enhancing district governance and preparing Hong Kong for real democracy.