For a few dollars more
When thinking of popular rallying slogans, the words 'more pay for legislators' rarely spring to mind. Indeed, defending the proposed pay rise for Legislative Council members may be regarded as eccentric. Yet, if Hong Kong is to be serious about elevating Legco's status, there is no reason to quibble over a pay rise that produces salaries which are less than half the sum to be lavished on the new bunch of novice political appointees about to enter the public payroll.
The Independent Commission on Remuneration for Members of the Executive Council and Legislature this week proposed that Legco members should have a 15 per cent pay rise to yield a monthly salary of HK$65,263. This is hardly a vast sum, and pales into comparison with the truly lavish salaries received by senior government officials who enjoy the public's largesse.
At the top of the tree is Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, the chief executive of the Monetary Authority. He is the world's highest paid central banker, with an annual salary of HK$9.57 million. That is about seven times more than the salary of the US Federal Reserve chief, who effectively sets Hong Kong's interest rates and other aspects of its monetary policy.
Mr Yam's pay tops that of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen but Mr Tsang, presiding over a population of some 7 million people, earns a great deal more than the president of the United States or the prime minister of Britain. That also goes for other senior civil servants, who receive the kind of money that makes their counterparts in far bigger nations salivate.
In this context, the increased pay for legislators and indeed for Exco members - who spend far less of their time on their official duties - is rather modest. But keeping Legco salaries low reflects the government's mindset of downgrading the status of the legislature and showing contempt for its members. Some members deserve this contempt. There is, for example, a strong case to be made for arguing that legislator Timothy Fok Tsun-ting hardly even justifies being paid the old salary. He is supposed to represent the sports and cultural sector, yet he has not moved a single motion or amendment for six years and has managed to miss 21 full Legco meetings and 33 votes. Few Legco members quite manage Mr Fok's impressive record of neglect but some, like Lau Chin-shek, seem to be working hard to match it. If everyone in Legco were as idle as these gentlemen it would be hard to justify any pay rise whatsoever. And some might argue that paying a few extra dollars to multimillionaires like David Li Kwok-po is neither here nor there.
Many Legco members, however, regard their work in the legislature as a full-time job. Or, at the very least, as a job that takes up the same amount of time as a regular job, even if they put in extra hours on other remunerative work. It comes as no surprise to learn that the annual survey from the Legco Catholic Monitors group shows that those who work the hardest come from geographic constituencies or the few functional constituencies that lie outside the rotten borough system.
It seems highly unlikely that monetary reward is the motivation for the hard workers; rather, the pressure of voters' expectations propels them along. The fact that they will do more for less should not be the basis for minimising salaries. But what of those who do less and will now get paid more? There is an extreme temptation to argue for a scheme that penalises the idle. This temptation should be resisted by those who believe in a democratic system and must, therefore, also believe that punishment should be left to voters - who should eventually be given a real choice of candidates at election time.
Not only should hard work be recognised in terms of remuneration, but a reasonable level of pay is required to ensure that Legco does not become the preserve of the wealthy or those in professions that allow sufficient flexibility for part-time work. Talented people from all walks of life should be attracted to the work, not to get rich but certainly not to worry constantly about their wages.
Paying Legco members roughly the same kind of salary as a bank manager or a university lecturer - which is approximately the level of the current proposal - is unlikely to attract candidates motivated by greed. Nor will it match the astronomical sum paid to legislators in Singapore's Mickey Mouse parliament. Their pay was recently increased to S$225,000 per year (some HK$100,000 per month) for very little work. (That is, aside from nodding their heads when the world's highest-paid prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong - who takes home the equivalent of HK$20.3 million per year - tells them to.)
Meanwhile, why on Earth does the government have a special commission to determine legislators' pay? Surely it would be far better to simply tie it to a predetermined civil service grade and let legislators ride along with government officials.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur