Reality check on pay cheques

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 August, 2006, 12:00am

For a political system to function effectively, its various components have to be staffed by equally capable people. Yet, for too long, because of the design of Hong Kong's political system, most administrative and political talent has tended to gravitate to the government rather than the legislature.

Now, a government proposal to create two new tiers of political appointees is likely to aggravate the problem - by giving the administration even more leverage in recruiting budding politicians. The issue is one that may affect the balanced development of our political system.

As the government seeks to boost the strength of its political ranks, there is an urgent need for it also to consider taking appropriate measures to boost the standing of our legislators. This is required to stop a possible brain drain from the legislature to the administration.

Under the government's proposal, 22 deputy and assistant posts to bureau directors will be created. The 11 deputy directors will be paid between HK$193,775 and HK$223,586 a month - equivalent to civil servants on D4 to D6 of the director pay scale. A further 11 assistants to the directors will earn from HK$104,340 to HK$149,058 - or D2 to D3 levels.

These handsome packages are significantly higher than a legislator's monthly pay of HK$54,390 plus a non-accountable annual allowance of HK$157,640 for entertainment and travelling. Good pay is not necessarily what motivates people to go into politics, and a good legislator may not be a competent administrator. But it is only natural that, given a choice, one would tend to take the better-paid job.

Our legislators' current pay puts them among the city's top salary earners, but merely on a par with middle-ranking civil servants. Unlike the latter, however, they get no other perks or pension entitlements.

For years, legislators have asked that their monthly pay be raised to D1 level - HK$92,650 a month - but their demand has fallen on deaf ears. Following a line set by its pre-handover predecessor, the Independent Commission on Remuneration for Members of the Executive Council and the Legislature considers that 'the work of the legislature is a form of service to the public', and that the pay level is appropriate.

It is true that the work of legislators is not as onerous as that of bureau directors or senior civil servants, who have to develop policies, manage budgets and oversee large numbers of staff. But legislators are representatives of the people, and they play the critical constitutional roles of monitoring the government's performance and approving spending proposals.

The commission's view might have made sense at a time when legislators were part-timers appointed by the government. With the introduction of electoral politics, however, most legislators see politics as a career, and their work in the legislature as a full-time job.

It is only fair that they should be properly paid for their service and commitment. Only then will more high-quality candidates come forward to stand in elections for the legislature.

Members of the public who feel legislators do not deserve a pay rise might find it fruitful to consider why the pay packages of all other public servants are so fabulously generous. They would find that the legacies of a colonial civil service are to blame.

The government is addressing the big gaps between public- and private-sector pay. Before those gaps disappear, there is no reason why legislators and their aides should be the odd ones out - namely, that they should fail to receive the same pay and conditions of service that apply to all other public servants.

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy