An easy way to improve the political system

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 April, 2007, 12:00am

Contrary to appearances, district councils have an important place in the evolution of political participation in Hong Kong. Their predecessors, the district boards, were established 25 years ago amid debate about the city's future, when negotiations leading to the Sino-British Declaration of 1984 had only just begun.

The boards - once the only elected public bodies, albeit that some members were appointees - became sounding boards of public opinion. When government officials of the day wanted to consult on public policy, they would turn to the boards and, later, the councils.

But since the introduction of elections to the Legislative Council in 1985 their role has diminished and they have become talking shops with little input on decisions that affect their constituents. That decline is recalled on Page 4 by councillors who have served continuously since 1982.

Hong Kong is the poorer for it. The 25th anniversary of the first district elections marks a missed opportunity to give them a more meaningful role. A pilot scheme under which four district councils have more say in community affairs began in January. But the limited responsibilities given them - and which will be extended to all 18 councils from next year - will make little difference. They will enjoy marginal input on the management of libraries, community halls, leisure grounds, swimming pools and beaches. This falls far short of what is required to breathe life into grass-roots politics.

The councils remain neutered by their lack of executive responsibility or power to deliver local services. Compared with overseas counterparts that have power over budgets for local services funded by property rates and central government money, they have little effect on local government. They can do no more than advise the local divisions of government departments. As a result, local issues are not getting the attention they deserve.

Hong Kong people would benefit from genuinely representative local government as it moves slowly along the difficult road to democratic reform. Giving the councils a more meaningful role would be an easy way to improve the political system.