Ayes on the prize

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2006, 12:00am

After eight years of delays and debate, culminating in a propaganda battle waged last month between supporters and critics, the Tamar plan faces its final hurdle today as legislators vote to approve funding for the new $5.2 billion government complex.

With major political parties and groups - with the vocal exception of the Civic Party - having indicated their support, a stamp of approval on the controversial project seems a foregone conclusion.

If all goes smoothly, construction of the new government headquarters and Legislative Council complex will start next year. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, or whoever becomes chief executive in March, and the principal officials are expected to move into their new home on the Central waterfront in 2010.

Resigned to the difficult cause of fighting what they ridiculed as a 'white elephant', anti-Tamar activists have said they will continue to closely monitor construction of the project.

'Today's vote will not be the end of the story,' said Alan Leong Kah-kit, a Civic Party legislator whose portfolio covers land and infrastructure.

Inaugurated in March, the Civic Party has emerged as a lone voice of opposition in the legislature after the two major parties reaffirmed their support, saying that the government had made concessions on their relevant demands. The support of the Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong virtually ensures today's vote will support the plan.

Mr Leong denied he felt a sense of frustration and defeat, but lamented that opponents of the project had not been able to galvanise enough public support, despite growing interest about issues such as the amount of open space in Hong Kong.

'Donald Tsang has put his popularity and credibility on the table,' Mr Leong said. 'The public trusts him, so they support Tamar ... For many people who don't work or live in Central, they may not even know where Tamar is.

'Public opinion is highly volatile. Who could have anticipated the snowballing of public grievances over the Article 23 controversy that erupted [in a public protest] on July 1, 2003? Who could have imagined the government would back down over the West Kowloon Cultural District project?

'It's clear that public sentiment towards the Tamar issue has not yet reached a tipping point; where there is enough intensity to significantly change developments. But who knows how the event will unfold.'

Mr Leong said there had not been enough time for public discussion on the alternative model released this week by the Civic Party. Its proposal features the building of a 20-storey annex at the Murray Building, plus the existing offices at Lower Albert Road, which together would provide the same office space as the Tamar project. Government Hill would be preserved, whereas at the moment its future is uncertain. Together with the adjacent St John's Cathedral, the Hong Kong Botanical Garden and the cathedral on Caine Road, the whole area would be kept as the city's lung, he said.

'Tamar would then become a sheet of blank paper for people to give their thoughts on the real 'people's Tamar'.

'Imagine the building of two commercial towers in future at the sites where the Central Government Offices are located. It will be strange. It's a great pity the government does not have a long-term vision about the development of the area.'

Political analyst Dr Lo Chi-kin said that, unlike controversial issues such as the constitutional reform blueprint and the West Kowloon cultural hub project, there had been no thorough debate on the Tamar project.

'Why? I think political parties don't see the need for a great debate,' he said. 'If there had been one, I'm not sure whether the outcome would be the same. Very often, public opinion is driven and shaped when views are exchanged in society.

'Major players including opinion leaders, political leaders and the media are largely unenthusiastic about the issue ... The issue has never whipped up a community-wide debate.'

Despite the fierce exchange between a coalition of anti-Tamar activists and the government in recent weeks, the public appears to have signed off on the debate.

In a poll commissioned by the Society for the Protection of the Harbour, released last Saturday, 45 per cent of respondents knew little or very little about the project. Only 11 per cent said they knew a lot or quite a lot. Also, 60 per cent wanted more consultation, 45 per cent would support the plan if it were pushed through Legco, while 36 per cent would oppose it.

An executive councillor, who did not want to be named, said Tamar was a minor issue compared with contentious policy issues such as health-care funding and a sales tax. 'If I had not been part of the administration, I would have favoured turning it into our central park, like Hyde Park in London.

'A small number of middle-class people do care a lot about the project. One expatriate friend came to me and said he has not yet seen a convincing reason why it has to be built in Tamar. But other than that, I don't hear a lot from my profession.'

Dr Lo, who runs a public affairs consultancy firm, said it was difficult to mobilise large numbers of people over the issue, which is primarily about land use. 'As major political parties have already committed to the project, it's become far more difficult for them to change their stance unless there is a sharp change of public opinion or new evidence unfavourable to the project.'

Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa broached the idea of relocating government headquarters to the Tamar site in 1998, apparently amid fears that auctioning the prime site during a time of economic crisis would undermine the property market. The Executive Council endorsed the project in 2002, on the heels of speculation that the government had revived the option of auctioning the prime site for commercial use.

A Legco panel handling lands and works policy and the public works sub-committee had given separate approvals for the project in 2003. As Sars gripped Hong Kong that year, fears of the economic impact of the disease prompted the Tung administration to shelve the project indefinitely.

Succeeding Mr Tung last year, Mr Tsang announced in his policy address in October that he would go to Legco for final approval before the current session ended.

Analysts said that after the defeat of the constitutional reform blueprint and a rethink of the West Kowloon Cultural District project, Mr Tsang could not afford any slippage on Tamar, not to mention a veto of it.

The new government complex has been deemed a test case for his promise of strong governance.

Speaking in an interview with Bloomberg last month, Mr Tsang said: 'It's not my project. It's a community project ... We need to be together in one place as most other effective modern governments are. So we need a new office. Where should it be? Community consensus is [to] go to Tamar.

'We'll still have a lot of voices of people who are not happy with it. That is a fact of life in Hong Kong.'

A senior official, who preferred anonymity, said: 'We are convinced the project has received public support. First, the issue has dragged on for so long. Criticism that we discuss without making decisions [or] make decisions without implementation, has rung loud in the minds of people.

'Second, people don't want to see a huge piece of land in the city centre lying idle. The issue then is about questions like design, air pollution, and maximum height of building.

'We have carefully studied the concerns raised and made improvements accordingly ... We cannot solely rely on votes in Legco. Look at the Democratic Party, support from legislators could be volatile. We have to make the project more saleable. This is what good governance is all about. We cannot go against public opinion.'

Democratic Party chairman Lee Wing-tat said the party's own opinion surveys showed findings similar to other polls that a majority of people supported the project. He denied claims that the Democrats hoped to change the perception through the Tamar case that they were 'opposing for the sake of opposition'.

'Issues like political reform and human rights hinged upon basic values,' he said. 'Tamar is different. There will always be vocal opposition from environmental groups. Tamar has become a symbol of the tug of war between government and environmentalists.

'Are we diluting the image of opposition? No way, we're on the opposition in Legco. But like the budget, we have to be more flexible to allow room for bargaining. The government did respond to our demands on Tamar.

'We would find it difficult to make a decision if opinion polls had shown a majority of people opposed the project.'