Poor bargain

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 February, 2012, 12:00am


The proposal to almost double lawmakers' salaries from HK$73,150 to HK$141,000 has sent shockwaves through the community, with a majority of netizens criticising the proposed pay level for being unreasonably high. They say some lawmakers have not been doing their job and don't deserve a raise.

I was once a legislator and I have always been supportive of paying full-time lawmakers a reasonable salary with sufficient subsidies so they can do their work properly. But the current salary proposal has no rational basis.

If the remuneration package is to be improved, the argument should not be for better personal benefits. Instead, it should be about strengthening our system to prepare for democracy. Yet, members have unanimously supported the pay rise by arguing for personal benefits, and overlooked the fact that their duty is to serve the public.

I disagree with linking their pay to the wages of bureau secretaries - there's no direct comparison. To the politically accountable principal officials, their job is a career. But being a lawmaker is a civic duty, and similar to other public services. Legislators should be honoured to be given this responsibility.

Besides, legislators enjoy numerous privileges. They have access to the VIP facilities at the airport, have designated parking spaces at the Legislative Council and have priority treatment when it comes to government functions.

If they want to link their pay to the salaries of bureau chiefs and senior civil servants, there is a need to revamp the current structure and make all elected legislators professional politicians. Then, they would have to follow a career path and should not demand that their pay be raised immediately to the level of bureau secretaries'. As it is, the public is certainly not convinced they deserve the rise.

However, I support generously raising members' allowances for operational expenses, particularly for running district offices, and especially for those who are directly elected because their work is closely related to the communities where they come from. The current resources provided to them are inadequate.

Besides the level of pay, members should focus more on the quality of their work, such as in the area of policy research. In arguing for their own pay rise, legislators have failed to see that it's more important to improve the pay, benefits and working conditions of their political assistants, who could help them to, among other duties, conduct research. At present, the average pay for a political assistant to a lawmaker is around HK$10,000 - no wonder it's difficult to attract the right talent.

Singapore's former prime minister Goh Chok Tong once said: 'If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys'. Hong Kong is on the path to democratisation and if we want to develop a strong and healthy structure, we need to have capable people to build and run the system. But before we raise salaries, we must first provide a solid foundation so people can do their job properly. In the eyes of the public, many legislators act like 'monkeys', who don't even deserve peanuts.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk