Long way to accountability from a suite in Brazil
Let's be honest about this - spending other folk's money is far more fun than spending your own. However, when it comes to spending public money, those responsible tend to solemnly declare that they exercise the greatest prudence and stick closely to the rules.
Anyone reading this who has not guessed that these observations relate to the chief executive's lavish hotel expenditure during a recent trip to Brazil can now go to the back of the class. Everyone else will be well aware of the furore that followed and may still be scratching their heads over the extraordinary statement by Donald Tsang Yam-kuen that 'we made the decisions according to working needs'. Details of those needs are eagerly awaited.
Meanwhile, Tsang may be relieved to know that he is far from being alone in the lavish expenditure of public money to secure personal comfort. I have reported on political leaders for far too many years in Britain, the Middle East and here in East Asia, and at one time even worked as a researcher for the ruling party in Britain. In all instances, what I found was that politicians and others of their ilk quickly developed a love of luxury, showed growing signs of feeling entitled to getting the best and, despite all evidence to the contrary, were confident that they could get away with using the public purse to fund their desires.
As a political researcher to one of Britain's agriculture ministers, I was deeply impressed by his lavish drinks cabinet (and even more impressed by being offered a share of its contents). Preparing for an upcoming party conference, I earnestly clutched a sheaf of briefing papers and prepared to discuss their contents. However, the minister's greatest concern was over whether he would be getting one of the better seafront hotel rooms and which dinners he planned to attend.
Even back then, it occurred to me that rank and file party members would have been rather taken aback to know this kind of thing. I mentioned these naive concerns to my boss, who laughed and said that the whole point was that they would never know.
Clearly, Tsang didn't expect the public to find out that he was luxuriating in a hotel suite costing almost HK$54,000 per day, or that flunkeys had been dispatched to Brazil at a cost of HK$1.6million to prepare for his visit.
So congratulations are in order to the intrepid reporters who blew the whistle on this piece of folly. They follow in the footsteps of those who unearthed the impressive spending habits of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other state leaders.
The point is that, these days, it is less likely that politicians can get away with spending public money on personal extravagance, and where the professional media naps on the job, the slack is more than likely taken up by whistle-blowers using the internet.
Yet there is something in the DNA of certain leaders that persuades them not only that they can get away with it, but that somehow they are entitled to the best because, er, they are the best.
I am not suggesting that politicians need to go to extremes to prove their frugality with public money; indeed, sometimes this parsimony is counterproductive and plain annoying. But there is a big gap between reasonable expenditure for public duties and lavish abuse.
In Hong Kong, the expenditure rules for more minor bureaucrats are tightly drawn but, up at the higher levels of office, there is a big gap in the regulations. As we recently discovered, this also applies to acceptance of hospitality.
It might be imagined that, in the absence of precise guidelines, the chief executive would exercise maximum restraint, but this does not seem to be the case. Yet he is genuinely hard-working and, whether you like the product of his work or not, it seems to be the case that he really is doing his best.
This makes it all the more absurd for him to squander a good reputation for a couple of trips on luxury yachts and the chance to sit in a vast presidential suite of a hotel in distant Brazil. Yet, as I have discovered after years of close proximity to politicians, they seem quite willing to risk so much for so little.
Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur