No more no-brainer public consultations in Hong Kong

Peter Kammerer says Hong Kong should stop wasting money on mindless public consultations and only seek people's views when it really matters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2014, 6:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 May, 2014, 1:28am

A corporation's primary goal is to make money for its shareholders. Hong Kong's government, led by a chief executive and with a mindset of running budget surpluses, as should be the case with any listed company, has been doing that admirably for years. Yet, unlike with firms on the stock exchange, we majority shareholders in Hong Kong Corp have only limited say in what gets spent and how.

The debacle over the high-speed rail line says it all: we weren't consulted on this revenue-sucking project that has lacked transparency. Due to poor oversight of the contractor, the MTR Corporation, it is now going to cost us billions of dollars more.

Hong Kong was always going to be connected to the national high-speed rail network. How much that was going to cost wasn't a matter of negotiation. But in keeping with obligations towards citizens, we should have been given honest updates on progress and the possibility of cost overrun. That's what a company is supposed to do for the people who finance and invest in its operations.

But keeping us informed is not the only place where the government has got it wrong. Take a look at the public consultations under way and you'll wonder why we need to be involved in so many no-brainer issues. We're being asked for our views on shops that use footpaths to sell their goods, whether the minimum wage should be raised, and the land use of a former quarry on Lamma Island. The first is a matter of law enforcement, the second should be automatically determined by the inflation rate, and the latter is for the residents of Lamma to decide.

Consultations can cost millions of dollars. They should only be used for important matters that affect the whole of Hong Kong. Gathering opinions on our future political system, charging for waste disposal and getting electricity from the Guangdong grid, I understand; giving firms wiggle room to pollute and confining public input of big infrastructure projects to environmental aspects, I don't.

Rarely am I supportive of the Australian system of government, which runs a mixed economy that veers between capitalism and socialism depending on who is in power. Yet I approve of the northern state of Queensland's approach to reducing its A$80 billion (HK$580 billion) debt by between A$25 billion and A$30 billion through an online public consultation called the People's Budget. How the mineral-rich state got into such precarious financial circumstances is complex; suffice to say, developed-world demands are costly, despite a land area 10 times that of Guangdong yet with just one-25th of the population.

Queensland Premier Campbell Newman has stressed the exercise that ends on May 19 is about canvassing opinion rather than being a poll that will dictate policy. Still, it lays out in great detail the state's financial situation and offers a host of options for cutting costs, from freezing civil servants' salaries for three years to selling off public assets like shipping ports, water pipelines and electricity generating plants. Results will be made broadly known and used to guide decisions. It's a major shift in thinking.

Now aren't these the sort of issues that the Hong Kong government should be asking us about?

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post