Breach of faith sets troubling example

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am


Henry Tang Ying-yen stepped into controversy again when he breached government rules and divulged what he claimed were remarks made by election rival Leung Chun-ying during an Executive Council meeting nine years ago. In what is seen as a desperate attack during a televised debate last Friday, Tang accused Leung of suggesting the use of tear gas and riot police to suppress protesters against the enactment of national security legislation. So far, no one at the meeting has come out and echoed the claim. But regardless of the validity of his statements, Tang is not only reckless in firing the broadside, which is difficult to verify; he has also upset the fundamental operation of Hong Kong's highest decision-making authority.

There are valid reasons why Exco requires members to abide by confidentiality rules. Operating like a quasi-cabinet of the colonial governor and preserved by the Basic Law after the handover, the council vets all major public policies and bills behind closed doors. To ensure members can speak freely without any pressure, it is necessary to ensure the discussions will be kept strictly confidential.

It goes without saying that the government should strive to be as transparent and accountable as possible. However, for the sake of effective operation there is a need to keep the cabinet discussions confidential. Tang argued that he knowingly breached the rules because there is overriding public interest. Since Leung is seen as having a genuine chance to win, he said it was necessary to expose Leung's 'real character' to the public. But the public is unable to judge whether Tang's account is true and, if it is true, under what context Leung made his remarks.

If Tang's 'public interest' defence holds water, he should have exposed this matter from the beginning. But he later admitted he made his disclosure after being provoked by Leung, who teased him during the debate about an alleged office romance. This reinforces the impression that the underdog was merely making a last-ditch attempt to wound his rival just days ahead of the election. It is strange that he should say he was prepared to review the confidentiality rules when elected. Is this his idea of how to right his wrong?

Tang set a dangerous precedent in disclosing a confidential exchange just to score political points, and the breach has reportedly angered Beijing. Exco members also took the rare step of issuing a joint statement stressing the importance of abiding by the confidentiality rules. They rightly pointed out that the public interest is best served by protecting the system of integrity. At stake is whether the cabinet can function effectively. It is incumbent upon the chief executive to adopt an unequivocal position and condemn the move.