Conflict of interest disclosures need to be more specific for Hong Kong politicians
Adherence to the highest standards in preventing conflicts of interest should be first and foremost in the minds of politicians nowadays. Not only are they required to abide by the strictest rules, they are also expected to put themselves to public scrutiny. But Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his appointees to the city's highest decision-making body apparently think otherwise.
Having been in office for 41 days, the Executive Council members finally disclosed their interests last Friday. While there appears to be no explicit rules stipulating when a new cabinet should register their interests, members' changes in interests should be declared within 14 days. It is, therefore, reasonable to expect the new team to declare their interests on the day they assume office. There is a need for our policy makers to take their accountability seriously. The belated disclosure does not conform to the spirit of the rules seeking to prevent members from running into conflicts of interest when deciding public policies.
It is also troubling to see that the chief executive is not setting a good example for his team. The records show that Leung has not transferred his stakes to a trust as promised. Subsequent investigations by the media also revealed that one of his companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and its subsidiaries hold a foreign branch of the surveying giant DTZ. Leung has only said the branch's operation does not touch on Hong Kong or the mainland, but refused to disclose more details. He was later found to have undeclared share options in DTZ. This clearly falls short of the requirement on transparency and accountability. As the head of the government, Leung is expected to sever all business ties. Withholding information does not ease concerns over conflicts of interest.
The records also show that some Exco members have invested heavily in properties. Altogether, the 30 members hold 142 properties here and overseas. This is hardly surprising in a society where property is one of the favourite investments for the well-to-do. But, inevitably, members' strong interest in the property market will arouse concerns about whether they can steer clear of conflicts, especially when the supply of affordable housing was a key focus in Leung's campaign platforms.
The scant information on their properties, many of which are held via shell companies, also makes public monitoring difficult. The register provides nothing other than the district where the property is situated. Only the appointee is in the position to judge if he or she will run into conflict with what is being discussed. As Exco meetings are held behind closed doors and the agenda is confidential, the public and the media will probably be kept in the dark and cannot determine if conflicts arise. It will be meaningless if the mechanism to prevent conflicts of interest stops with a simple declaration of interest on paper.