No quick fix to our complex problems
Bernard Chan says outcry to act now is understandable but unrealistic
Hong Kong people are frustrated and impatient for action to tackle issues like housing affordability, poverty and the environment. It is not surprising that some people were disappointed with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's first policy address. As one critic in the Chinese press essentially said, "C. Y. has had 10 months, and yet this is all he comes up with".
Clearly, the last government failed to live up to expectations. We may need quick fixes in some areas. But the policy address was about long-term policy progress. To that end, committees are being formed to recommend policy reforms in land supply, working-hours legislation and other, often difficult, areas. As someone who chairs one of these committees, I would like to say how I see this process working.
First, let's take a look back. For the first four of those 10 months, the chief executive-elect was not in office. He attempted to pave the way towards change by preparing for government restructuring, but opposing lawmakers prevented it by filibustering.
In the subsequent six to seven months, his team has accomplished things. It has imposed a zero quota for mainland women giving birth here. It implemented higher welfare payments for the elderly poor. It announced big upgrades to facilities for less mobile pedestrians on our streets. Some new faces, with strong personal commitment to their fields, have joined the policymaking ranks.
These were specific responses to specific problems, rather than a new vision.
A frustrating aspect of government in an open, rules-based system like ours is that leaders cannot make something happen at the push of a button. For example, some people would have liked the policy address to include full legislation on working hours, taking immediate effect.
But attempts to push things through could backfire. The administration does not have a popular mandate, or a natural support base in the legislature, the media, or the business, labour or professional sectors. There are conflicting views on many policy proposals, and all need to be aired so everyone can see and judge them.
Some critics say these committees serve as an excuse for delay. Quite the opposite: they may be the quickest way of arriving at good proposals that can make it through to implementation. Ideally, they will have more credibility than some past public consultation exercises in which debate was framed behind closed doors, and in some cases the proposed policy ended up being ditched.
My committee already exists. It is the Council for Sustainable Development, and its task is to find ways to implement waste charges. That means getting households to pay in proportion to the quantity of waste they throw out, thus giving them incentives to reduce waste.
You might think this is easy. In an authoritarian regime, it would be. But in Hong Kong, we have to convince a lot of people. We must listen to building managements, residents' and owners' committees, environmentalists and district councils. A total consensus is probably never possible, but we must satisfy a large segment of the community that any proposal is fair and equitable. And it must be practical.
A Ming Pao writer wrote that these committees will only work if they listen to all views. This is true. The committees' success will depend on all parties being ready to listen, ready to be flexible and ready to compromise in order to serve the interests of the community as a whole.
The recommendations that come out will still be subject to Executive Council, Legislative Council and - depending on their policy area - other environmental, legal, planning and regulatory hurdles. This is not about quick fixes; it is about long-term, and probably long overdue, change.
Bernard Chan is a member of the Executive Council