Jake's View

Lam doesn’t understand legislative oversight

Chief secretary views Legco as a conduit through which funding requests must pass

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 3:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 2016, 3:44pm

“The government doesn’t want this to happen because we respect the procedures very much. But there is a deadline for the railway funding and we must get it before the deadline or the consequences will be serious.”

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam

City, February 1

And therefore a Legislative Council sub-committee is to be pushed aside so that Carrie Lam can go directly to the more compliant Legco finance committee for approval of extra funding for that new high-speed railway across the border.

Follow the thinking here. In our system of government Legco must approve requests from the administration for public funds and did, in fact, approve a budget for this railway.

But costs have gone way over budget and, if more money is wanted, the administration must go back to Legco. This is the way the system works.

The point is that this is Legco’s responsibility and Legco has the right, in fact the obligation, to inquire closely how it came about that the project went over budget and whether it is a worthwhile expenditure. Lam should be asking these questions too, of course, but the primary responsibility is Legco’s.

Bear in mind the background here. No-one in Hong Kong ever asked for this railway and it satisfies no need we have. It was foisted on us by Beijing as our obligation to the national high-speed railway initiative and our bureaucrats just bowed and said “yes, boss”. One country, two systems, you know.

Thus we have what is a rather dubious project in the first place and the Legco sub-committee looking at the over-runs is quite right to do so very closely.

Perhaps our chief secretary also believes in the divine right of bureaucrats

But this is obviously not Lam’s thinking. The way she sees it is that Legco is a conduit, created as a Basic Law anomaly, through which funding requests must pass. While minor obstructions are occasionally allowed in this conduit the flow must not be blocked. The conduit’s role is to pass through what is put in it.

Students of British history may recognise the phenomenon in the centuries old conflicts of king and parliament. Perhaps our chief secretary also believes in the divine right of bureaucrats.

But there you have how things stand. We must (my italics) get it, she says, implying that the elected representatives of the people have no right to deny her.

And what this tells me is that she does not, as she claims, “respect the procedures very much”. In fact, she does not even understand them.

She is not the only one to be afflicted by this confusion. On Saturday the chairman of that compliant Legco finance committee, Chan Kin-por, stopped debate on extra funding for another pointless infrastructure project, the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, so that he could push through approval of the funds.

He admitted after the vote that transport officials had failed to provide satisfactory answers to the lawmakers’ questions on the project but said he had to cut the debate time “to strike a balance” between his colleagues’ right to ask questions and “public interest”.

That certainly put his view of the matter baldly. It was not in the public interest that legislators elected by the public and tasked with the oversight of public spending should ask more questions about the use of public funds intended for a public infrastructure project.

Who then, Mr Chan, is the keeper of the public interest? Do you claim a special gift of insight not shared by others as to what is good for us and what is not? Does Lam? When the law says that this is Legco’s job, who are you put yourself higher than the law?

I accept in both cases that the costs of these projects can rise substantially unless the extra money is approved or that they may even have to be cancelled with a loss of all the money so far invested.

Legislators may well argue, however, that these are wastrel projects anyway and we would not really lose much that we have not already lost.

I also accept that the motives of some legislators involved may have more to do with general democracy issues than with the projects themselves.

But that’s the Basic Law. It introduces inconveniences, sometimes considerable ones. Shall we scrap the Basic Law then, Carrie?