A litany of broken promises

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 October, 2010, 12:00am

It is said that one of the most dangerous things in politics is a long memory. This maxim seems to be unknown to the Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen who, having delivered his policy address, rashly told the assembled media, 'if I fail to deliver my policy pledges, you will certainly pursue me and hold me responsible'.

The temptation to take the chief executive at his word is overwhelming, so let's look at the record and see whether Tsang should be held responsible for failure to fulfil past pledges.

A good place to start is environmental policies which figured big in last week's policy address and have done so in the past, accompanied by a conspicuous lack of action. Who now remembers 'Operation Blue Skies', launched in 2006? The most striking outcome of this initiative was the government's discovery of how to manipulate air pollution data, showing impressive gains on paper while at ground level air pollution continued to increase.

The following year a HK$3.2 billion fund was launched to help commercial vehicle operators switch to less polluting fuels. The outcome was the conversion of just one bus and a take-up rate of only 20 per cent or so for the fund. It has since been quietly abandoned. Now, without even acknowledging the failure of the past scheme, a new scheme, with a more modest budget of HK$550 million, has been launched with similar objectives.

Last year's pledge to institute air quality benchmarks appears to have already been forgotten. Meanwhile Tsang's funny little plan to provide funding for low-energy light bulb replacement has also disappeared into the haze of pollution.

This year's policy address carries the dubious title: 'Sharing Prosperity for a Caring Society': its centrepiece is a joint-government and tycoon fund to transform government poverty alleviation policy into something akin to a charity project. What happened to the more meaningful 'voluntary wage protection initiative'? This was another scheme reliant on the goodwill of business that produced precisely zero by way of outcome. As a result, the government was shamed into introducing a minimum wage law, which can still be undermined by the people who shunned the voluntary initiative.

And just in case there is any lingering illusion that the Tsang administration was even vaguely serious about better governance, let's consider the dull impact of the so-called 'Principal Officials Accountability System' introduced in 2002. The word accountability has been taken to mean more or less nothing because every time there is a major failure inside government, the buck stops nowhere. The minister for planning is not responsible for major scandals in land grants, blunders in the medical service are seen as acts of God and when a member of Tsang's own cabinet openly flouts the rules of disclosure, he is not punished but lauded by the chief executive.

There was a hope that the 2008 political appointments system would have gone some way to achieving its objectives of injecting greater political savvy into the administration and producing a stratum of promising leaders-in-waiting. The reality is that practically no one even knows the names of these appointees, let alone the jobs performed by these individuals. With a couple of honourable exceptions, their impact has either been zero or notable only for the controversy their blunders produced.

Meanwhile, in the minefield area of housing policy, dissatisfaction has mounted despite the Tsang administration's constant pledges to do something. The most tangible thing done by the government was to abolish the Home Ownership Scheme and, at a stroke, remove the lower-paid from any prospect of ever buying a home. This scheme has now been replaced by the allegedly far better 'My Home Purchase Plan' (who thinks up these names?) which is on a far smaller scale and has been greeted with widespread scepticism. Because the government can never admit to mistakes, it refused to restore the HOS.

And then there's Tsang's quite unambiguous pledge, made in 2007, 'to resolve the issue of universal suffrage' within his term of office. This has now been reinterpreted to mean pushing through a bill on revised election plans for the chief executive, which falls short of any genuine form of universal suffrage while ignoring the issue of allowing all members of the public to elect legislators.

Tsang argues that as this is something that will come into force after his term of office ends, it would not be appropriate for him to act. Yet in discussing his policy address, he said 'service to the public must be a continuum. It must not be truncated by the terms of office of individual chief executives'.

The list of broken pledges, reworking of pledges and the employment of statistics to prove the unprovable is long but apparently shrugged off in Government House, where self-congratulation is the order of the day. Tsang says he wants to be held responsible for broken pledges but he is becoming infamous for saying one thing and meaning quite another.

Anyone hoping for much improvement from his successor, who will in reality be chosen in Beijing, must have supplies of optimism denied to mere mortals.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur