Survey on John Tsang of dubious value

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2011, 12:00am

In the past few weeks, governments around the world have been tested on their ability to respond to crises and assure their people that they remain fully informed, with the capability to respond decisively. And then there is ours. We seem fully capable of creating our own crises and then failing to respond to them properly. First, there was the unpopular budget, followed by the alarming U-turn that suggested budgetary principles can be discarded upon a whim, and then chased down with confusing messages over the wisdom of flying to Japan. Meanwhile, ministers continue to fire off defensive remarks to the public, whether it is over the budget reaction, opposition to class reductions, or concerned travellers. The budget U-turn already made the government look as if it had no rational principles of governance and little idea how to proceed in the face of discontent. Now, officials have secretly asked the people what they should do next: 'Should John Tsang (financial secretary) resign?' asks the latest government-commissioned poll, the results of which are intended for the eyes of our ministers only.

The government and its Central Policy Unit should, of course, conduct research and analysis on changing social and political attitudes. Hong Kong people have strong opinions on a range of subjects, but the lack of full democracy means the city's leaders do not have the benefit of clear mandates on which to act and proceed with certain policies they know have been endorsed by the people during elections. Such surveys can provide highly valuable references as to the people's expectations of the government. But there is dubious value in this particular survey. It does not ask about people's beliefs in the role of government and how the people would prioritise the spending of public money. Instead, it asks directly whether the fourth highest-ranking official in Hong Kong should proceed with his political career.

Since the results of the government survey may never be disclosed, we might never know whether it forms the basis for any decision on Tsang. The financial secretary has indicated he intends to continue, but revealed he was unaware of the survey. Indeed, one must wonder what motive lay behind letting the public know it was scrutinising Tsang's popularity, even if it did not intend to act upon the results. Indicators of ministerial popularity are already easily accessible through the public University of Hong Kong polls. The latest survey found fewer people with confidence in John Tsang than those who had last confidence in him. Following the budget, 37 per cent of the respondents gave him a vote of no confidence compared to the 31 per cent who maintained confidence in him. But does the unpopularity of a minister necessarily mean he should step down? If that is the case, then also bid farewell to Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung and Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing who both polled more no- confidence votes, than votes of support.

Instead of searching for answers from the public, the government should be giving the public some answers. Surely the ministers know best whether Tsang, or the administration collectively, sacrificed public interest. Only they know why Tsang, having previously asserted with such certainty the economic principles behind the original budget, would do almost exactly the opposite a few days later. What was the revised economic analysis, or changing economic circumstances, that led the government to make such a radical U-turn? Was it based on economic analysis at all, or was it merely a political manoeuvre? Only the government has the answer.