Public should know

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 August, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 August, 1994, 12:00am

NOTHING inspires the Government to action quicker than a bad press. The Governor and his advisers lecture us about the dangers of increased corruption in the run up to Chinese rule. They have boosted manpower at the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). But it has taken the negative publicity over former acting Secretary for Works Kenneth Kwok Wai-kai's alleged abuse of his position to make $30 million on a property deal to stir the administration into more fundamental action.

As a result the Government has called on the ICAC to provide new, more stringent guidelines for its committees and advisory boards than the existing two-tier system drawn up and somewhat patchily adopted two years earlier. It is also considering vetting civil servants to ensure they do not abuse inside information. If it does so, it is also considering whether to make that information public.

The answer should be an unequivocal yes. For as long as civil servants, public figures and the graft-busters themselves are united in the view that the decision makers' privacy is more important than public confidence in their integrity, the recent flurry of activity will fail to impress. The public will not be reassured the Government takes corruption seriously unless officialdom is not only clean but can be seen to be clean.

The ICAC's proposed disclosure guidelines for members of government committees and advisory boards are certainly a step in the right direction. It is imperative members of those bodies with decision making power be obliged to declare and register their interests.

No one would wish to suggest all or any incumbent members are abusing their positions, least of all without evidence to prove it. Nevertheless, in the present hothouse atmosphere, the mere suspicion that office-holders are in a position to benefit unfairly undermines their credibility. The damage done to former Executive Councillor and Transport Advisory Committee chairman Maria Tam Wai-chu by the revelation of her family's taxi-business interests should be etched on the memory of every public official.

The ICAC's failure to recommend the register of interests be available to public scrutiny is a disappointment. The public has a right to judge for itself whether the government's advisers and decision-makers are honest, reliable and acting in the general interest. That is what open government is about: offering a further layer of checks and balances to the powers of executive. The Executive Council's image was tarnished earlier this month by its reported reluctance to disclose members' share dealings to the public. If the Governor values clean and open government as he proclaims, he should not permit official committees and advisory boards to follow Exco's example.