Pinning a fiasco on a scapegoat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 February, 2007, 12:00am

It is not surprising that lawmakers are asking whether InvestHK chief Mike Rowse is being made the fall guy for the Harbour Fest foul-up, while political ministers are let off unscathed.

Denise Yue Chung-yee, secretary for the civil service, explained in Legco that, by law, principal officials do not come under her bureau because they are not civil servants. They are ministers, under the accountability system set up in 2002.

Since Mr Rowse has decided to take the case to court, the judiciary will, in due course, render its judgment on his role. In the meantime, let us look at the principal officials who are getting off scot-free, and their roles in the Harbour Fest fiasco.

The decision to sponsor the Harbour Fest project was made by the Economic Relaunch Working Group (ERWG), as a way of relaunching Hong Kong once the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome had been contained.

ERWG was chaired by the financial secretary, and its members included the following secretaries: commerce, industry and technology; economic development and labour; financial services and the treasury; and home affairs. The director of the Chief Executive's Office and the director of Information Services were also members. The director-general of investment promotion was the secretary.

The financial secretary at the time was Antony Leung Kam-chung, who resigned in July 2003. Henry Tang Ying-yen, secretary for commerce, industry and technology and a key member of ERWG, became the new financial secretary.

The secretary for economic development and labour was, and still is, Stephen Ip Shu-kwan. Similarly, Frederick Ma Si-hang was the secretary for financial services and the treasury and remains in his post. Ditto for the secretary for home affairs, Patrick Ho Chi-ping.

The decision to sponsor what became known as Harbour Fest was made on July 2, 2003. ERWG decided, after viewing a power-point presentation by the American Chamber of Commerce, to sponsor the project and to underwrite the event up to HK$100 million. Amcham was left to plan, organise and implement the festival.

That decision was made by five political ministers who ostensibly are part of an accountability system, plus the chief executive's representative. Strangely enough, none of them are being held accountable.

When Harbour Fest failed to reach its objectives of boosting local morale, attracting tourists and demonstrating to the world that Hong Kong had recovered from Sars, the public - and Legco - demanded accountability.

The chief executive set up an independent panel of inquiry to examine, among other things, the procedures for assessing and approving the Harbour Fest proposal.

In its 202-page report, the panel found an absence of due diligence by ERWG. They said the group 'should have recognised the need to closely scrutinise the Amcham proposal and to raise with the Amcham representative queries on a number of key issues.

'ERWG did not ascertain the experience of Amcham in organising entertainment concerts and in engaging artistic talent,' the panel concluded. 'As it turned out, there was little concert organisation experience from within Amcham.'

The overall conclusion was that ERWG had 'approved the Harbour Fest project without adequate assessment'.

Given such a damning assessment of ERWG, what punishment was meted out to the principal officials who made up the group? None. Instead, officials decided to offer up Mr Rowse as a scapegoat, even though Mr Tang had said publicly on October 30, 2003, that he would take responsibility.

Instead, Mr Tang became a witness to give evidence against Mr Rowse at the civil service hearing.

Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, when introducing the accountability system, said that its purpose was 'to enable principal officials of the HKSAR government to assume responsibility for their policy portfolios'. Now that the system has been in place for five years, we see that not a single principal official has ever been held responsible.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.