A case that highlights problems with system

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 May, 2006, 12:00am

A government-appointed inquiry has failed to put an end to the row over a bonus land grant for the Grand Promenade development in Sai Wan Ho. Instead, it has triggered a standoff between the administration and the Legislative Council.

The significance of yesterday's motion debate did not lie in the apparent contradictions between the conclusions of the inquiry report and two others by the Director of Audit and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The real issue was about legislators making a stand over what they considered to be an attempt by the government to whitewash the matter.

That was only to be expected. The audit report was critical of former buildings director Leung Chin-man's decision to approve the land grant. A subsequent report by the PAC endorsed the audit findings. Yet, the inquiry has absolved him of any blame, as he had followed the right procedures and sought proper advice before making his decision.

As the inquiry report could be construed as a slap in the face for the audit chief and PAC members, it is only natural for legislators to make a stand to protect their credibility. Constitutionally, the arrangement for the Audit Commission to report to Legco is one of the most effective weapons the council wields in checking the government. Politically, as legislators are cast in a role of permanent opposition with no hope of forming the government, they are only too eager to seize the opportunity to assert their authority over the administration.

It is interesting to note, however, that the motion, which was unanimously carried, was couched in the most harmless terms. It merely called on the government to reaffirm the audit and PAC conclusions and fully implement their recommendations. It was also one that even the government had no trouble accepting, as the critical observations about Mr Leung's conduct did not form part of the recommendations. As for his culpability in the matter, the government has every reason to accept the conclusions of the inquiry report, as it is also backed by outside legal advice.

The question to ask is how the motion might have fared had it been couched in more critical terms. If it had called for a censure of the officials concerned, it might have forced the government to mount a sterner defence and lobby the pro-government parties to reject it. A division among legislators over an issue that touched on a key constitutional duty of Legco would have been counter-productive. That such a scenario has been averted could be seen as a demonstration of political maturity by both the government and Legco. Still, it is worrying to note that the established practice of appointing an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of a controversy has failed, in this instance, to pacify the critics. That is a reflection of how the political climate has changed and how the standing of the government has weakened. Elected politicians are much less likely to accept the findings of a government-appointed inquiry, however professional its findings, if they do not suit their purpose. On its part, the government has sown seeds of suspicion - from Cyberport to the West Kowloon cultural complex - that are hard to uproot.

Allegations of collusion between government and business made by some legislators yesterday were not entirely justified. But as long as our political system continues to give disproportionate votes to the business sector, they are likely to be repeated by politicians. After all, they have no reason to measure their words as they will never be put in a position of supervising the decision-making process that Mr Leung professed to abide by.

The problem can be addressed at its root only by fixing our political system to make it more democratic and to give legislators a bigger role in governing Hong Kong. That way, our politicians would have more reason to make a better distinction between professional errors and political favours.