Why has election watchdog been snoozing as others act?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 December, 2011, 12:00am


Not only have Mr Justice Barnabas Fung Wah and his colleagues at the Electoral Affairs Commission been found sleeping on the job, but it is also proving astonishingly difficult to rouse them from their slumber.

As news trickled and then streamed out about suspicious irregularities in the registration of voters, followed by a slew of arrests, the commission did nothing until, on November 30, it issued a statement saying no discrepancies were found on the Northern District electoral register. It later said it had sent out 674 letters inquiring about other registrations and had received responses from 104 confirming they are bona fide voters. There is a sense here of an organisation determined to find that nothing has gone wrong. At the least, why is this alleged watchdog so determined not to watch?

Let's be clear about the commission's responsibilities. Its terms of reference are unambiguous: it is responsible 'for the conduct and supervision of elections' and 'the registration of electors'. So why has it slumbered while action was being taken by the local media, in its watchdog role, alongside the Independent Commission Against Corruption and the police in their law enforcement roles?

Fung, meanwhile, has summoned the television cameras to observe him pottering through empty polling stations casting dummy votes, presumably to indicate that everything is ready for the Election Committee polls tomorrow. He has also, finally, suggested there might be some problem with the self-declaration system of voter registration.

However, suspicion that this system was flawed and that abuse was taking place emerged well before the recent district council elections. Fung and his colleagues at the commission, senior counsel Lawrence Lok Ying-kam and academic marketing specialist Andrew Chan Chi-fai, however, preferred to spend their pre-election time dreaming up a crazy plan to try to regulate election coverage on the internet, by insisting that internet channels give equal time to all candidates. As the avalanche of ridicule advanced, they were forced to abandon this ludicrous idea.

This tiny group of government trustees is unaware that the World Wide Web might be hard to control from a little office in Hong Kong.

Yet, government appointees to the many advisory and statutory bodies here appear to have a quite unwarranted self-confidence. They tend to be appointed not for their specialist knowledge but for their track record of not making waves.

No one from the Electoral Affairs Commission has, for example, sought to question a number of candidates in the agricultural and fisheries rotten borough standing in tomorrow's poll who are patently not qualified to run because they are not employed in the trades supposedly represented by this sector.

Fung is a classic 'safe pair of hands' choice to head the commission. Most of his legal career has been spent on the bench as opposed to being at the coalface of private practice and he has risen quickly up the ranks. The government appears unconcerned over a possible conflict of interest for a High Court judge who might be involved in legal proceedings arising from electoral malpractice. Lok is another safe pair of hands. Chan, however, is more typical of the government appointees who serve on a large cache of official bodies and has a Silver Bauhinia Star pinned to his chest for his troubles.

What is remarkable about this election supervisory body is that it does not contain a single person with specialist election knowledge.

None of this is to belittle the personal qualities of the members of the commission but it does serve to remind us that, when the government selects people responsible for sensitive public bodies, it seems to be more concerned with finding personalities who have a very strong pro-establishment background than seeking out people with relevant specialist knowledge.

Usually it is possible to obscure this lack of knowledge but, when something like this election scandal blows up, it is laid bare. And it raises rather troubling questions over the way Hong Kong is being run.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur