Donald Tsang

tim hamlett's hong kong

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 June, 2006, 12:00am

It seems that legislative councillors of all stripes have found one thing they can all agree on - the council deserves a pay rise. And the figure being put about is rather beyond the scope of the usual coy 'adjustment'. This is not a matter of covering inflation with a bit for luck. They are talking about 70 per cent. The justification for this, which no doubt looks a good deal more convincing if you are a legislative councillor than it does if you aren't, is that it would put members on a par with directorate-grade civil servants.

As an enthusiastic and indiscriminate admirer of legislative councillors - not to mention directorate-grade civil servants - let me give you folks a bit of advice. First of all, this is not a good time to discuss this particular topic. Councillors have just voted in obedient droves to finance the Donald Tsang Memorial Harbourside Erection, which will be as expensive as a small pyramid and about as much use.

A proposal to increase members' pay will need government support. If it appears that the government, fresh from the good news over the planned eyesore, is now willing to throw huge sums of money at councillors, some of us will put two and two together. No doubt the government and councillors will say that the two issues are entirely separate. Many people will not believe this.

Others will have some difficulty with the implied notion that being a legislative councillor is a full-time job. Councillors will patiently explain to anyone who is willing to listen that the Wednesday meetings of the full council are a mere iceberg tip on hours of unappreciated toil. They have to attend ... um ... committees.

Actually, this is not quite true. They can attend committees if they wish. And if not, not. Whenever I have attended a Legco committee meeting you could count the number of councillors present on the fingers of one hand. Sometimes you could count them on the fingers of one finger. Even the Finance Committee meeting to approve the Tsang monolith attracted a worse attendance than I get to classes (which, believe me, is not setting the bar very high).

Nine councillors had more important things to do. Sightings of some councillors are so rare that they produce a small leap in the demand for Mark Six tickets. The fact is that being a legislative councillor has one enormous difference from the jobs inflicted on the rest of us. The work is optional.

Some of the laziest councillors are also among the longest-serving. The word 'serving' is used loosely here. In any case, there is an important issue of principle involved. It is a basic tenet of military leadership studies in both the western and eastern traditions that the general should share the hardships of his troops. If they go hungry, so should he. If they sleep in the open, so should he. And so on. Legislators should subject themselves to the same hardships as they arrange for the rest of us.

It is a pity they do not have a proper pension scheme. But who does? Let them rely on the Mandatory Provident Fund. That is what they supply for us. Their offices are cramped. Well, I am willing to bet they are larger than the space allocation for four people in public housing - in which the family is supposed to live, not just read white papers to itself. This line of thought suggests two alternative ways of determining legislative pay.

They could be given the average Hong Kong income, thereby deriving a magnificent incentive to do better by us all. Or they could, in the best Hong Kong tradition, be left to the tender mercies of the marketplace.

Unfortunately, we cannot simply outsource the job and give it to the bidder offering the lowest tender. This is a procedure our leaders are happy to inflict on other people, but councillors really have to be chosen by some sort of election.

It appears, though, that there is currently a good balance between supply and demand. There is no shortage of eager would-be councillors at present rates of pay. A salary increase might attract better candidates. It might just attract greedier ones.

I am not sure that quality is particularly desirable, anyway. The council has been carefully designed so that its composition, elections, procedures and powers leave members with the bare minimum of real power required to produce the appearance of a democratic system without the inconvenient reality.

Legislative councillors are the constitutional equivalent of the four ladies who stand behind the king in Cantonese opera movies. They are there to provide an aesthetic gloss on the exercise of autocratic power. Do not overestimate your importance, girls.

Kevin Sinclair is ill but he will continue his On The Spot forum