Number crunch

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 April, 2006, 12:00am

A temporary venue for activities ranging from the 1997 handover ceremony to trade fairs and outdoor film shows in the past nine years, the Tamar site has been condemned as a disreputable landmark of the beleaguered Tung Chee-hwa administration.

Refraining from revisiting the past official dilly-dallying over the plan to build a new government headquarters at Tamar, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen was full of determination in the past week, hoping to fast-track the plan as a showcase of strong governance.

'This government,' he told the Legislative Council during question time last week, 'has often been told we had discussion without making decisions, made decisions without implementation.' The message is unambiguous: now is the time for action.

Mr Tsang insisted Legco gave consent to the project three years ago 'but there is still opposition today. I think that has gone overboard.'

Against the backdrop of criticism by former premier Zhu Rongji directed at the indecisiveness of the Tung administration, nine years on, the fate of the Tamar site will be put to a vote tomorrow when the government seeks Legislative Council approval for the creation of a directorate post for co-ordinating the new government headquarters project.

Although approval won't be sought until June for major funding for the multibillion-dollar plan, tomorrow's vote is seen as an indicator of the stance of major parties.

Fears of a Legco veto have prompted the director of the Chief Executive's Office, John Tsang Chun-wah, to conduct negotiations with two major parties for a compromise in the past few weeks.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) has insisted the new headquarters should be seated in southeast Kowloon, referring to the Kai Tak site. The Democratic Party, which previously backed the Tamar plan, warned the party might now oppose the plan if its five-point counterproposal was not heeded.

Support from one of the two major factions is crucial to securing a majority for its passage in Legco. The DAB has stood firm on its Kai Tak model. Core members hinted they would not necessarily oppose the Tamar plan if the government could come up with concrete plans to rejuvenate Kai Tak. The Democrats have also indicated room for conditional support. Chairman Lee Wing-tat said this week: 'We do not oppose for the sake of opposition.'

While the government and the two parties were moving closer to a deal, environmentalists and a business lobby have cautioned against massive development in the area, which they say would aggravate air pollution and cause serious traffic jams. They have called for a thorough review of the development plan for the Central harbourfront area.

A senior government source said: 'Putting the Tamar plan back on the drawing board is a non-starter. We've finished all the planning procedures. The next step is to go to the Finance Committee for funding.

'It's hard to say whether it will get enough votes in Legco. Things keep changing. Just look at the Legco vote on the constitutional reform blueprint,' he said, referring to the embarrassing defeat of the government.

Defending the Tamar site as the best option, the chief executive has argued that putting the three branches - executive, legislature and judiciary - together would enhance efficiency. It would be fitting to put the new government headquarters near Central, a symbol of the city's financial centre, he said. Importantly, the plan will create more than 2,700 jobs for the construction sector, which has not fully recovered from the 1998 economic downturn.

But a high-ranking government official was doubtful about the way the decision on the Tamar plan had been made.

'Yes, the issue has dragged on for many years. But it's not a case where we have ongoing discussion on the merits and demerits of the plan. Have we provided various options and made comparisons? Have we fully assessed its impact on society as a whole? Have we seriously studied the southeast Kowloon model?

'I wonder why we need to put so many civil servants in Central. Some bureaus and departments should be relocated in other districts to better suit the needs of their work.

'Few places in the world have their government headquarters in the city centre. Like the West Kowloon cultural district project, the Tamar plan should start afresh,' said the official.

Anthony Cheung Bing-leung, an Executive Council member and a political scientist, said the public did not seem enthusiastic about the debate on where the government headquarters should be seated.

'People don't seem to have strong views one way or another. Probably the truth is that there is no absolute answer to the question of which is a better location.'

He said the government position on the Tamar plan had been clear and consistent. Its thinking is that extra office space is badly needed. Building a headquarters on the Tamar site could free up the Central Government Offices buildings and the Murray Building for redevelopment.

'The situation remains as it has been ... Government is adamant it has made its case clear. The DAB has explained its alternative model well. Environmental groups have stated their position,' Professor Cheung said.

'Given one or two more years for debate, the arguments will perhaps remain the same. I can understand why the government wants to take the project forward. There's no massive infrastructure project in the near future. Government needs to keep public works spending going if it wants to create jobs,' he said.

Unless the public agrees to leave the Tamar site as it is, Professor Cheung said it would make more sense for the government to be the developer to ensure concerns such as the protection of harbour views were addressed.

The Democratic Party's Mr Lee said his members would consider supporting a middle-of-the-road package that includes drastically reducing the scale of the new government headquarters and keeping the Central Government Offices buildings for conservation.

'The idea of turning the Tamar site into a huge recreation park sounds good. But I don't think the government will agree, even if we vote against the new government headquarters plan. It will lead to nowhere.'

Mr Lee said the Democrats were approached by John Tsang last month for discussion on a compromise. '[The] DAB has stood firm against the plan. There's a genuine possibility the project could be vetoed at Legco. We [the Democrats] are ready to be flexible if they respond positively to our demands.'

The Democratic Party has proposed turning the offices at Lower Albert Road into a museum. 'There's a lot of collective memory about the open space outside government headquarters, where tens of thousands of people have staged demonstrations. It should be saved from demolition,' he said.

DAB vice-chairman Lau Kong-wah maintained on Monday its proposal to site the new headquarters in Kai Tak would serve the best interests of society. 'The Tamar site can generate huge sums of revenue for the treasury. Officials will of course feel inconvenienced [if they have to move to Kai Tak]. But the overall interest of people is first and foremost in our consideration.'

Tuesday, however, saw signs the DAB might make a U-turn, after the chief executive took the unprecedented step of joining the party's central committee meeting to lobby for support.

Chairman Ma Lik praised Mr Tsang for his sincerity; the chief executive described the government-DAB relationship as a 'core partnership'.

The central committee said its party caucus in Legco could consider voting in favour of the Tamar posting tomorrow, if government responded actively to its southeast Kowloon plan.

Political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said: 'Mr Tsang has already prepared a golden staircase for the DAB to climb down [from its opposition to the Tamar plan].'