The big issue no councillor wants to discuss
Campaigning for the district council elections is in its final stages, as voters go to the polls this Sunday. Some people have complained that the elections have been overshadowed by the more glamorous Hong Kong Island Legislative Council by-election.
With small campaign budgets, the battles for the 405 district council seats have been somewhat quiet and lacklustre. There have been no mass rallies, no TV debates, and electioneering is limited to low-key fliers and banners. But a rough calculation will reveal that, by the end of campaigning, about HK$36 million will have been spent on the part of the candidates.
Taking into account government mailing subsidies and publicity, something like HK$70 million will have gone on choosing minor politicians to advise the government on district affairs. While this is by no means a large sum, Hong Kong could certainly do better with such an outlay.
District councils are a strange beast. They were established, as district boards, 25 years ago, during the early stages of the Sino-British negotiations on the future of Hong Kong. Ostensibly they were to represent the voice of local people; members would be free to express their views on any topic and the government would listen. But Beijing raised serious objections to this approach. As a result, district councils lost their political impetus.
After the handover, and with the abolition of the urban and regional councils, the function of district councils as a training ground for budding legislators disappeared. This made them even more irrelevant.
Like any official institution in the world, our district councils will continue to exist as long as they don't make a nuisance of themselves. The district council system continues because it still serves certain social and political functions. It is not too conspicuous an item in the government's budget, and district councillors provide many necessary services to the grass roots, which would be much more expensive if they had to be supplied by government officials.
This is a win-win situation for the government and local residents. For the various political groups and parties, affiliated district councillors form a vital part of their election machine - and it is maintained by taxpayers.
True to the original objectives, district councillors can still express their views on any topic, and bored government officials will still take notes. That is one reason why many candidates' campaign platforms feature more than just the routine pledges to fight for a bus station here or a lamp post there. Often, you will find promises about a minimum wage or universal suffrage, for example, as if their views really matter.
One topic is conspicuously absent, however: reform of the district council system itself. This is the one issue that councillors should care about; the government would certainly listen to their views.
In fact, the administration has already begun a reform process, but few people have taken any notice. After the usual consultation exercise, and the usual apathetic response, the government is now taking steps to implement the changes.
In short, the administration plans to delegate more power to the district councils to supervise local spending and to run local amenities. At last, district councils will have something to get their teeth into. The trend is for more decisions to be made and more problems solved at the district level.
Even though the election candidates are in no mood to discuss the issue now, they will have to address it soon, should they get elected.
This is a vital political development, and we as citizens should pay more attention to it, even if most of the mainstream media and our politicians are not interested. In the meantime, remember to cast your vote, because it is much more important than it was four years ago.
Lau Nai-keung is a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate