Political parties ensure greater continuity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 April, 2009, 12:00am

The former ombudsman, Alice Tai Yuen-ying, made headlines when she criticised the ministerial system for creating a lack of co-ordination, and continuity within departments. But she did not offer any solutions.

It is probably true that, before the British left, civil servants who ran the colony shared similar backgrounds and values, and worked together. Now, with political appointees who are in office only as long as the chief executive, there is bound to be a different attitude. But it needn't be unworkable.

Take the United States, for instance. Every four years - or eight, at most - there is a new president, who brings in his own team of people to run the country. This does not result in poor co-ordination or the appointment of people with no experience of government - quite the opposite.

In fact, when Barack Obama started appointing people who had served under president Bill Clinton, he was criticised for not bringing about 'change'. His response was that he was the change, and if he did not appoint Clinton-era officials, he would have to bring in people with no experience in Washington at all.

The good thing was that there were people in the country who had served in the government and who had been doing other things in the past eight years, often at universities or in think-tanks and who, when the Democrats were returned to office, were available to serve the nation again.

Similarly, former Bush administration officials have entered the private sector or academia and, in due course, will be ready to serve again when the Republicans return to power, as they inevitably will one day.

So while the US has a 'ministerial system', its principal officials tend to be people who have many years of government experience, unlike in Hong Kong. That is why many of the ministers we have today are former civil servants, because they are the ones with the experience and the know-how to run the government.

But now that Hong Kong is moving towards a more democratic system, policies cannot be made by civil servants. In fact, one reason for the ministerial system is to get away from rule by civil servants.

Of course, the system of political appointees is only seven years old. That's not long enough to build up a cadre of experienced people who do not come from the civil service. The creation of two more layers of political appointees to assist ministers is a move in the right direction and, eventually, there will be more people with government experience who are not civil servants, who can be called on to form a government.

But that will not be enough. What is needed is a party system, as in the US, so that when one party gains power, it will have enough experienced people to draw upon while supporters of the party out of power await their turn.

US President Obama is able to draw on legislators, such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or from the private sector, such as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, former governor of the state of Washington.

In Hong Kong, unfortunately, money is seen as all powerful and some people are unwilling to leave their career in business to serve the community for four or five years. Many are willing, of course, to serve in unpaid positions on a part-time basis, including membership of the Executive Council, but this is not enough.

We need people who are willing to serve in government full-time, who can return to commerce, academia or think-tanks when their term is up and who, possibly, will be called on to serve again when there is a change in administrations.

In other words, what we need is a system of political parties. With political parties, there will always be people waiting in the wings ready to take over. Without political parties, we will forever be faced with the problem of disunity within government and a lack of experience.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.