Donald Tsang

Ministerial proposals raise serious concerns

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 July, 2006, 12:00am

Politicians are supposed to be accountable for their actions. If they do not answer to the people who pay their salaries, an 'accountability system' such as Hong Kong's means little. Thus, the government's proposal to extend our city's peculiar and ineffective system of ministerial responsibility raises serious concerns.

What has been proposed is an expansion of the ill-fated concept introduced by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa. Political appointees were installed as ministers over the heads of the civil service chiefs. Government sold the system as one that would encourage ministers to sell policies more effectively while holding them accountable for policy blunders. The appointments enabled Mr Tung to bring in hand-picked allies to overcome what he saw as bureaucratic obstruction.

The system failed all of these expectations. In the absence of representative government, political appointees were accountable to the chief executive, not the public - and Mr Tung was reluctant to hold them accountable for anything. They clashed with senior civil servants. And the government was not able to sell its policies to the public, a prime example being the Article 23 national security legislation.

Now Donald Tsang Yam-kuen is seeking to improve the system by giving ministers more support. A consultation has been launched on a plan to appoint deputy and assistant ministers from the civil service, politics, academia, the professions, business and other fields. The immediate concern is that this will compound the flaws of the existing system. Why expect Mr Tsang to be any different and not appoint people more likely to say what he and his ministers want to hear? Where does this leave senior civil servants? The need to interface with two new layers of artificially accountable political appointees seems unlikely to do much for their independence.

The government claims that the extended system will help groom political talent for the legislative and district councils and at the same time protect the neutrality of the civil service. That is unlikely. Instead, the 'reform' will likely be yet another obstacle on the long march towards democracy.

The truth is that this proposal represents an ill-disguised attempt to sow the seeds of a government-dominated political party. That should come as little surprise given Mr Tsang's clear admiration for Singapore's People's Action Party's ability to nurture political talent. But it is nonetheless disappointing.

The best accountability system remains one based on universal and equal suffrage. Places with a directly elected government do not need hothouse politicians. The best way to nurture political talent is organically. This means giving more support to political parties and strengthening institutions such as the legislative and district councils. Bureaucratic tinkering is no way to fix a bad system.