No democratic merit in appointing councillors

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 December, 2007, 12:00am

The appointment of 102 district councillors by the chief executive yesterday highlights how far our city still has to go before its political system becomes fully democratic. This practice, which has its roots in the colonial era, is inherently undemocratic and should be scrapped when reforms take place. Meanwhile, those who are appointed have a responsibility to work hard for the whole community.

Unsurprisingly, the appointments included 26 members from government allies - the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Liberal Party. It might be argued that this is in line with the public's wishes, given that the DAB scored a landslide victory in elections last month for the other 405 district councillors. But this will cement the party's dominance across the districts. The elected candidates won their seats on merit, in fair and open elections. The same cannot be said for their appointed colleagues, however strong their qualifications for the job may be.

No known members of the pro-democracy camp appear on the list of appointments. This, too, is to be expected. Many democrats would likely refuse such an offer anyway, on the basis that the process is undemocratic.

The appointments come in the same week that the chief executive revealed he had sent a report to Beijing on constitutional reform. It is possible that district councillors will be given a key role in any proposals for change, as they were in 2005. If so, such proposals are more likely to win support if the practice of appointing councillors is scrapped.

The councils, previously known as district boards, were the first government-sanctioned political bodies to experiment with the one man, one vote system back in the 1980s. During the last years of British rule, all their seats were openly elected. But the practice of making appointments was reinstated after the handover. Now, as Hong Kong seeks democratic reforms, district councillors should no longer be appointed.

There is a positive sign, however, in the appointments announced yesterday. It is that more than half of the appointees are newcomers with professional and technical backgrounds. This injection of new blood is welcome. The councils are the most representative grass-roots political bodies we have and are the natural place to cultivate political talent. Hopefully, more of them will come up with new ideas to secure more powers and responsibilities for their districts.

The government has stressed the need to groom new politicians to prepare Hong Kong for universal suffrage under the Basic Law. Yesterday, it secured legislative approval for HK$65 million in annual funding to hire 24 new undersecretaries and political assistants. A whole new tier of government is being created on the questionable argument that they are needed to carry out political work for the government and lay the groundwork for full democracy. The government should stop treating district councils as paper tigers with only an advisory role to play and give them more powers over local affairs. This is the way to attract new talent.

Director of Home Affairs Pamela Tan Kam Mei-wah said all district councillors would, from next month, be given more money to hire their own staff and make business purchases without having to follow government procurement procedures. More municipal works would also be given to the districts. This is welcome, but it is not enough. The councils deserve more elected seats and greater powers as part of the city's natural development towards full democracy.