District councils should be given real powers
The proposals to strengthen the district councils, announced on Thursday, are long overdue. We have been waiting seven years for the government to make good on its pledge to give the councils a more meaningful role.
But the suggested reforms fall far short of expectations. The councils should be given genuine policy-making powers and real budgets. Only with meaningful authority and accountability will they become training grounds for budding politicians.
The role to be played by the 18 councils is important for two distinct but related reasons. The first is that they have the potential to make a more valuable contribution to the development of their districts, especially through the provision of public services and the organisation of community events. Most of the councillors are elected by constituents in their district. They are able to respond to local opinion and can act as a vital bridge between the public and the government.
The second role the councils can play is grooming politicians. Elected councillors have been accused of making irresponsible demands on the government. But that is because they know they will not have to implement those demands and be held accountable for their consequences. One way of encouraging our politicians to act responsibly would be to give them the onerous burden of making key decisions on district affairs, including how public funds should be used to provide local services required.
The proposals announced by the government are a step in the right direction, but their scope is far too limited. There is no change to the statutory regime governing the councils. Crucially, their decisions are subject to the approval of government departments. The district officers will remain fairly junior officers with little clout to shape the provision of public services by various departments. They may even be sidelined in future, as councillors and department heads may want to deal directly with the Secretary for Home Affairs or the permanent secretary, who will chair a committee to resolve inter-departmental district management issues.
The conservative nature of the proposals suggest the government is wary of the Basic Law provision barring district organisations from becoming centres of political power. Ultimate decision-making power will continue to rest with the administration at the central level. No political parties will be able to do what they want in the districts, even if they manage to win a majority of seats.
Nor has the government responded to calls for a reduction in the number of district councils. Currently, there are 18 councils and their 400-plus members each represent about 17,000 people. A candidate can win an election by securing just several thousand votes, with a platform that panders to the narrow interests of a very small constituency. Trimming the number of councils to between six and nine would broaden the parochial perspectives of councillors and attract more quality candidates.
If the current proposals are adopted, they are unlikely to prompt more aspiring politicians to become district councillors, as quality candidates would rather run for the Legislative Council. Over the past two decades, few elected district councillors have managed to climb the political ladder by becoming legislators. A small number who have succeeded in doing so tend to hang on to their seats, denting the ambitions of those who have laboured in the districts for years.
The lack of politicians with the capacity to make responsible decisions has been cited by the central and Hong Kong governments as a reason why this city is not ready for full democracy. The validity of the argument is questionable. Even if it were correct, the proposed reforms will do little to boost supply.
The district councils have been on a continuing decline because of their failure to attract top people. A rare opportunity to invigorate them will be missed if the government sticks to its proposals.