Principled stance

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am


'The price of greatness,' said Winston Churchill, 'is responsibility.' The idea that government ministers should take responsibility when things go wrong is embedded in the Westminster democratic tradition, and reflects a basic political virtue. After all, politicians are always quick to claim the credit for any success. For a minister to fall on his or her sword, when the situation demands, is both honourable and necessary, as the buck must stop with someone, and this should not be the civil servant.

In 1954, after an inquiry in England condemned the ministry of agriculture over the way it had treated the heirs of Lord Alington, whose land at Crichel Down had been compulsorily purchased by the government for war office use, the agriculture minister, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned. He said he took complete responsibility for his officials, although he did not agree with the inquiry's verdict on their conduct.

In 2002, Tony Blair's transport minister, Stephen Byers, resigned, not as a result of any single failure but because of ongoing criticism levelled at his policies and actions in the various ministries he had headed. Byers explained that he had become a distraction, and that 'by remaining in office I damage the government'. This was a principled stance for a minister to take.

When the principal official accountability system was introduced in Hong Kong in 2002, it appeared to herald a new political age. The politically appointed ministers would henceforth be responsible for ensuring good governance, and would be held accountable when things went wrong. The chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, explained that 'officials should be responsible for the success and failure of the policies for which they are responsible'.

However, since Tung left office in 2005, not a single minister has resigned over any mistake or policy failure, and this is certainly not because everything in the garden has been rosy. The community has, regrettably, witnessed egregious blunders at the top of government, for which heads should have rolled. However, errant ministers have leech-like, clung grimly to office, despite failures of the first order. Great damage has, in consequence, been done to the body politic.

The new system was always going to take time to establish itself, but the initial signs were positive. The health minister, Yeoh Eng-kiong, for example, bravely took responsibility for the government's handling of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, and resigned in 2004.

However, when the HarbourFest project turned sour, following post-Sars attempts to revive Hong Kong, no minister stepped forward to shoulder responsibility, and a senior civil servant, Mike Rowse, was left to carry the can. This was hardly what the architects of the accountability system had envisaged, and an exasperated Rowse wrote to the then financial secretary, Henry Tang Ying-yen, to inquire: 'Who is the minister for HarbourFest?' Unfortunately, these were not mere teething problems. Tung's ministerial model has not, in more recent times, been allowed to achieve its potential.

In 2010, for example, the civil service minister, Denise Yue Chung-yee, was found by a Legislative Council select committee to have committed 'a grave error of judgment' in having previously approved the employment by New World China Land of former housing director Leung Chin-man. Earlier dealings between Leung and New World revealed what was 'plainly conflict of interest', and the committee concluded that 'Yue had neither given precedence to the protection of the public interest nor upheld the approval criteria of the control regime, resulting in the government's credibility being damaged'. Damning words, but, instead of taking responsibility and stepping aside, Yue simply announced that she was 'sorry'. Leung himself, however, had earlier had the decency to resign from his post at New World, and he was not even a principal official.

Recently, two ministers revised their plans following protests: environment minister Edward Yau Tang-wah on the plan for the Tseung Kwan O landfill in 2010; and the former constitutional affairs minister, Stephen Lam Sui-lung, on the by-election replacement mechanism this year. Both ministers had acted at first on the legal advice of the secretary for justice, Wong Yan-lung, to the effect, in Yau's case, that legislators could not overturn an order of the chief executive to expand a landfill, and, in Lam's case, that the removal of open suffrage as a basis for filling Legislative Council midterm vacancies was constitutional. But the advice was seen by some as fundamentally flawed. Again, after both ministers backtracked, no heads rolled, although the two episodes raised serious questions over the quality of the legal advice being made available to ministers who have to take important policy decisions.

However, the chaos surrounding the government's last budget must surely rank as one of the great debacles of recent times. The financial secretary, John Tsang Chun-wah, spent months preparing his budget, yet it was dumped overnight, following protests, and replaced by something significantly different. This cast a massive shadow over the competence of the administration, and reduced the minister - who, as usual, did not resign - to a laughing stock.

Although the government asked the Central Policy Unit to seek the views of the public on the fiasco, the results were not announced, which speaks volumes for what they would, undoubtedly, have revealed.

The accountability system is, basically, a good one and should be allowed to work. It is not the faith that is currently at fault, but the faithful. When ministers are found to be seriously inadequate, they must go. A major challenge for the new chief executive will therefore be to enforce the system, as this will enhance good governance and raise public confidence in ministerial arrangements.

Grenville Cross SC, an honorary professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, has served as a legal adviser to governments in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom