EOC chief has failed in his duty to champion gay rights

Albert Cheng sees a clear conflict of interest, given the Exco convenor's reluctance to criticise the chief executive on anti-discrimination law

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 2:43am

The recent public conduct of Equal Opportunities Commission chairman and Executive Council convenor Lam Woon-kwong reminds me of the bat in Aesop's fable, The Bat, The Birds and The Beasts.

In the story, when there was a great battle between the birds and the beasts, the bat fought on the side it believed would win. When the birds had the upper hand, the bat declared it was a bird. But when the beasts had the advantage, the bat switched sides and declared itself a beast. Lam has, of late, been rather like the bat.

As a staunch supporter of gay rights, Lam has long called for equal rights for homosexuals. He has been urging the government to launch a public consultation on the implementation of anti-discrimination laws.

In a recent radio interview, he expressed disappointment about the government's decision not to launch such a consultation, which he said would have been a reasonable first step.

But, he added, since the chief executive thought there was no urgency for the matter, we had to accept this political reality. And, no matter how disappointed he was, he said there wasn't much he could do.

He said the commission would continue to speak for people with different sexual orientations and called on the community not to give up on the fight to protect gay rights. So far, Lam has merely paid lip service to the cause.

When he was appointed to Exco last July, Lam made it clear that he would quit the council if there was any conflict of interest due to his dual roles.

But, after he had been reportedly briefed by officials responsible for Hong Kong and Macau affairs, Lam apparently changed his tone. He said that since taking over the commission, he had delegated much of his power to senior staff and, as a result, he believed the chance of any conflict of interest would be minimal.

Also, he had previously said that when his term expires at the end of this month, he would not seek another. Now, however, his term has been extended for two months, pending the appointment of a replacement.

Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying appears to have changed his mind about launching a public consultation on the anti-discrimination legislation due to strong opposition from the conservative pro-establishment camp. Leung's U-turn forced Lam to also shift his stance.

It was absurd to see former head of the Equal Opportunities Commission and current Exco member Anna Wu Hung-yuk defending Lam by saying that his Exco role would help him in his fight as commission chairman to better protect minorities and the vulnerable. The truth is that neither of them have ever used the Exco platform to advance and promote the work of the commission.

Instead, Lam defended Leung's maiden policy address, praising his boss for his energy and vision. He even applauded Leung for being the first chief executive willing to tackle pressing issues such as land shortages, retirement protection, poverty and pre-school education.

Lam said he admired Leung's perseverance and the government's courage in choosing the treacherous path when tackling policy issues. This kind of praise-singing is undignified, to say the least.

After the new Exco was formed last July, I said that if the vulnerable in society continued to have no voice in the body, it would demonstrate that its members were all working for their personal interests. This is clearly the case.

Ironically, the Equal Opportunities Commission has recently released the findings of a public survey showing that 60 per cent of the respondents favoured consultation on a law to protect sexual minorities against discrimination. With such strong public backing, why would the chief executive say society was still largely divided and insist on reaching a consensus before making a move?

Lam didn't have to accept Leung's decision not to consider a public consultation on an anti-discrimination law, he chose to do so.

Shortly after taking the helm at the Equal Opportunities Commission, Lam established a very high public profile by attacking the various policies of former chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. He immediately became a man of the people.

In January 2005, Lam resigned as director of the Chief Executive's Office after a tabloid magazine published photographs of him and a woman friend at a Tokyo hotel. His decisiveness won a lot of applause at the time. Until he shows the same willingness to do the right thing again - which is to leave the Equal Opportunities Commission at the end of this month, as he was supposed to - he will be unable to reclaim any respect, grace and dignity. He should beware of the fate of the bat from Aesop's fable: it had to conceal itself in the dark, going out alone and at night, and never seeing the light of day again.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk