The futility of trying to please everyone

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

It is a fact of political life in free societies that governments can govern only with the consent, whether implied or explicit, of the governed. In democracies, that consent is regularly renewed, or not, at the ballot box. If renewed, the party in power soldiers on. If withheld, the opposition takes over.

It is natural, then, for governments in such communities to go ahead with policies which they think will be popular and to seek support and understanding for proposals they think will be less welcome.

This last point is an important one. Governments are there after all to govern, not sit around waiting for a consensus to emerge. In an emergency, delay might be fatal. Even in less dramatic circumstances, not everyone is going to agree with every policy. The government has to weigh up different views, opposing interests, and then decide what it thinks is in the best overall interests of the community. Its many judgments will in turn be judged by voters at the next election.

Hong Kong is a free society, but not (yet) a democracy. This key factor reduces the authority of the administration and lessens its ability to govern. Because it has no popular mandate, it tends to move cautiously on every subject and to try to seek a consensus on everything, even where common sense indicates that the opposing interests cannot be reconciled.

We have seen examples in recent weeks of where this weakness leads.

One concerns the legislation to make drivers switch off idling engines. Finally it has been passed, but only after so many exemptions were granted that the final result is virtually useless. So the overwhelming majority of us who are being slowly killed by the foul air polluted by vehicular emissions have been obliged to compromise with a small minority insisting on the right to enjoy air conditioning at all times and in all circumstances.

How much more robust our environmental officials could have been if they were armed with a democratic mandate.

Another example concerns the Hong Kong marathon and the proposals to make a great event even better. This annual race has grown into something truly spectacular. Visitors from overseas fly in to participate. The media coverage projects exactly the image we want the rest of the world to have of our city as a modern, lively, cosmopolitan place.

In order to improve the marathon further and open it up to more people, we need to extend the hours of road closures to a full day. And we need to consider alternative routes, to bring the event closer to the city centre. If London and New York can do it, why can't we?

But here is where the desperate search for a consensus at all costs brings us up against a brick wall. Because, although even non-participants can see that the race is a good thing, there is a minority of road users who object even to the present system of road closures.

Yes, it does cause some inconvenience, and extending the hours would make the situation worse. But where does the balance of advantage lie for the community as a whole?

The government has done its usual ducking and diving, and declined to take a position. At least two ministers have said it is up to the organisers - or the runners - to bring the community to a consensus. This is gibberish. How can those who want the roads closed for longer reach a consensus with those who do not think the roads should be closed at all?

In a democratic society, a minister would now come forward and show some leadership. Sadly, in Hong Kong's political environment, such a quality is fast becoming conspicuous by its absence.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong