Levelling the playing field
Donald Tsang Yam-kuen finally has a concrete achievement (in more senses than one) to show for his two-year term as chief executive: he has won the 'Battle of Tamar'. Victory came after he gained the support of the Democratic Party in return for assurances on environmental protection, restrictions on the height of government buildings and the net floor area.
The government has also agreed to seek public views on competing models for the $5.1 billion Tamar development project, to be unveiled by the end of the year. Director of Administration Elizabeth Tse Man-yee said focus groups would be formed to come up with the best plan for Tamar.
The government, however, continued to avoid questions about the basis of Mr Tsang's claim - made during an interview with Bloomberg - that 70 per cent of the public supported the Tamar project and only 20 per cent opposed it.
Now that the battle has been won, no doubt attention will shift to other issues. But it is important that the government not be allowed to make claims and then refuse to substantiate them.
The chief executive has provided no evidence to back up his assertion that 70 per cent of the public supported Tamar.
The government later explained that Mr Tsang's figures were 'a summarised description of internal [opinion] polls, meetings with different sectors including the Central Policy Unit, focus groups, and the views of callers when officials appeared on public affairs programmes'.
This suggests that Mr Tsang extrapolated from a hodge-podge of sources, most of which are unavailable to the public and hence cannot be examined and challenged. While polls, meetings and focus groups are all legitimate sources of information, unless the public has the opportunity to make its own evaluation, it is all rather meaningless.
Mr Tsang also said that, in Hong Kong: 'We need to be together in one place, [like] most other effective modern governments.' That is not an easy case to make.
For one thing, the White House and Capitol Hill are not cheek by jowl in Washington, as the Legislative Council and Central Government Offices would be at Tamar. Is Mr Tsang arguing that the US government is not modern and effective?
Besides, the current government offices are within easy walking distance of Legco. Is it really necessary to make them even closer?
It is not a good idea to rely on government-sponsored public opinion surveys, whose questions, methodology and responses are not disclosed. Such surveys are prone to abuse, since the government is in a position to pick and choose which bits of information to disclose and which to suppress.
Last July, Mr Tsang shocked many people when he announced, in a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club, that Hongkongers thought it was more important to have a central slaughterhouse for chickens than to have universal suffrage. He said that finding had emerged in a survey conducted by the Central Policy Unit.
But this time, Mr Tsang did not even disclose who had conducted the survey and when it was conducted. This is government-by-secret-survey. When no one else has access to information about a survey, the findings can be manipulated at will by officials.
As a government that is not democratically elected, the Tsang administration has an obligation to provide a level playing field for opposition politicians, the media and the public at large by making available as much information as possible.
Just as in court the government is not allowed to suppress evidence that favours a defendant, so outside the courtroom the government has an obligation to make known survey results - as well as outcomes of meetings and focus groups - that do not support its position.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator