More district authority and responsibility needed
If ever there was evidence of the government's lack of innovative thinking when it comes to political reform, it is its consultation paper for reinvigorating district councils. The proposals do not give the councils a big enough role and fail to appreciate that this is a perfect opportunity to build a political system from the grass roots up.
This should be foremost in the minds of officials as they review the suggestions and work on the final document, following the end of the three-month period for public discussion today. Without consideration of the true worth of the councils, they will miss a golden opportunity to incorporate valuable ideas that are being articulated, but have not yet been implemented.
Hong Kong is at a crucial stage of its political development. The Commission on Strategic Development is considering models for a system under which the chief executive is elected by universal suffrage. Last week, the government also announced proposals for introducing two new layers of political appointees to provide ministers with more support.
For months, the government has been talking about the need to groom new political talent, which is needed as Hong Kong moves towards the Basic Law's ultimate objective of universal suffrage. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen returned from Singapore earlier this month talking about how the island nation went about the process and holding it up as an example we might want to follow.
It would be wrong to copy the system used by a one-party state that has no regard for those who do not follow its political thinking when we can build a fairer, better, more transparent one of our own which makes the best use of district councils. They are, after all, the perfect building block from which we can create a new, more democratic, political system. Through them can be groomed the talent Mr Tsang and others seek.
The district councils, which as district boards marked Hong Kong's first steps towards democracy when members were elected in the 1980s, should play a key role in our future political system. This was recognised by the government when putting together its ill-fated constitutional reform package, which failed to receive the required support from the Legislative Council in a vote last December.
That package proposed giving more Legco seats to district councillors and allowing them a bigger say in electing the chief executive. But the best way of fully using these politicians is by giving them a more meaningful role in running the affairs of their local communities.
The government has long realised that the district councils are essentially toothless - they are mere talking shops lacking the authority to do the work that local authorities should carry out. In effect, the 400 elected and appointed councillors from the 18 councils are consultants whose views are mere suggestions; the government has the final say on what they can and cannot do.
That was why the consultation paper was drawn up. Within its pages are proposals to give greater powers to councillors for the management of facilities like libraries, community halls and swimming pools and authorising them to initiate and endorse projects worth up to $15 million from a $600 million funding pool.
Such plans, the government says, will bring about desired reform. Ultimately, though, it would still have to approve whatever decisions are made at district council level. The responsibility given to district councillors would be so limited as to make little difference to their role.
The government may be worried about scandals in which some district councillors have committed crimes. But the way to deal with such problems is to give councillors more authority and responsibility so that talent will be drawn to the positions. We need a system which provides greater transparency, accountability and democracy, while allowing district councils to play a much more meaningful role.