Where's the will?

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 December, 2008, 12:00am

Has the Hong Kong government lost the will to govern? This is not an impertinent question. There are signs that the administration is not getting some of the most basic things done. The question is: why? A government's determination can be seen in the way it functions. We do not need to make an assessment based on unexpected events or new challenges where political leaders have to carve out a new path. There are run-of-the-mill things that tell us the state of the government.

Let's take the taxi strike last week. Anyone with a modicum of interest in public affairs knows of the high level of discontent among taxi drivers. For several years, they have been unhappy about bad traffic management in busy spots, triad control of taxi queuing at the airport, the growing prevalence of non-licensed services to the airport, and the fare structure.

A good example of poor traffic management is right in the middle of Central at Pedder Street, where the taxi queue is often a mess because Kowloon taxis try to get to the front of the queue to pick up passengers.

Why transport officials cannot solve this problem is a mystery, since there are examples elsewhere that work, such as in Causeway Bay. Again, the allegations of non-licensed passenger services and triad interference have been around for a long time, with the government unwilling to act.

The taxi drivers' unhappiness was waiting to boil over and it did, on December 3. The recently revised fare structure does not apply to green taxis serving the New Territories, meaning it became cheaper for customers to take red taxis serving the urban areas for long journeys, such as from the airport to the New Territories. On November 30, taxi groups had already warned that some drivers were threatening to protest about what they saw as an unfair situation.

The next day, government officials said they needed at least a month to approve a new fare adjustment for green taxis, even though the drivers claimed they had raised the issue in August. In the past, there was debate about the new fare level but things were bound to explode once the green-taxi drivers saw they were losing substantial business to red taxis under the new scheme.

The final straw was when an airport security guard advised a passenger heading for Tuen Mun to choose a red taxi. Green cabs began to block the red-taxi queue, causing major traffic jams that spilled over to other areas in Hong Kong. The protest had to be broken up by police. It was entirely preventable; officials just needed the will to deal with it ahead of time.

The affair reminds us of how badly things were handled during the suspension of the levy on foreign domestic helpers. The move encouraged employers to fire their helpers and then rehire them to benefit from the suspension. Helpers were understandably unhappy but were in no position to strike.

Another example is litter that despoils so many parts of Hong Kong. Such rubbish will often eventually find its way to the sea; we already have a substantial marine litter problem. There have been several waves of cleanup efforts, the most recent big push being Team Clean in 2003, following the severe acute respiratory syndrome crisis.

That initiative was headed by the then chief secretary, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, now the chief executive.

A 'zero tolerance' enforcement campaign was promised, but the government has seen a 46 per cent jump in illegal dumping cases by construction companies since landfill charges were introduced in 2006.

Green groups have accused building firms of paying private landowners in the New Territories to dump waste on their land instead of paying landfill charges. Fly-tipping black spots are well known and well reported.

Why are these things not corrected? Clearly, they all point to a loss of will by the government.

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange