Tobacco role no bar to advising government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 June, 2006, 12:00am

Questions of conflict of interest in public administration, business and the law can be carried to extreme lengths. But they cannot be dismissed lightly without the risk, sooner or later, of questions being raised about the fairness, integrity and competence of decisions that affect our lives in one way or another. As a result, codes of ethics designed to avoid conflict of interest apply from top to bottom of government and the civil service, business and the professions.

When questions are raised about conflict of interest they often do not uncover an example of maladministration, dishonesty, injustice or undue influence. But they underline the importance of justice, honest dealing and fair administration being seen to be done.

An example is our report today about concerns raised by the anti-smoking lobby over the government's engagement of a British American Tobacco (BAT) executive as a consultant to its Central Policy Unit. The unit is an influential think-tank that advises the chief executive directly on policy and political issues.

Anti-smoking activists and legislators feel the involvement of this executive may be unhelpful to efforts to push through a ban on smoking in public places.

Laws expected to be approved soon and introduced from next year will cover smoking in restaurants, billiard rooms, karaoke bars and bars open to all age groups. But after much lobbying of the government and legislators by business interests, nightclubs, mahjong parlours and similar businesses appear to have won an exemption until 2009.

The executive, Philip Ho Wing-hong, is one of 40 part-time members of the Central Policy Unit who take part in regular discussions. He was appointed for his professional background in public relations before he joined BAT. Mr Ho says he has since consulted the government on whether his position represents a conflict of interest.

Few people would disagree that the government's policy advisers (and ministers themselves) should have access to the best expert advice and experience a community has to offer, whether it be in health, education, transport, land development or, in this case, public opinion and public relations. The overriding consideration is the public interest and public confidence in the integrity of the political process.

The issue may be compared with the recent revelation that two part-time judges are members of the Civic Party. Questions were raised whether their political affiliations might undermine confidence in the rule of law. After all, full-time judges must sever such connections. Part-time judges, or recorders, are senior barristers who are potential candidates for full-time positions and provide valuable additional manpower for an often hard-pressed judiciary.

This newspaper argued that since safeguards existed, such as a requirement to stand down if there is a conflict of interest or the risk of a perception of one, it would be unfair to ask senior lawyers to quit their membership of political parties and other associations before undertaking a temporary appointment. Rather, the judiciary could look at tightening the rules that govern part-time judges' declaration of interests. The overriding consideration was public confidence in our judges.

That advice seems eminently applicable in this case. Having declared his interest, there seems no reason for the government not to value Mr Ho's expertise in another area.

In the uphill battle to stamp out smoking in public places, Hong Kong remains out of step with many great cities it is fond of comparing itself to. For five years the fight to keep things that way has been led not by Big Tobacco but by local business interests such as the catering lobby - with the tobacco industry lending support from the sidelines.