Legco gridlock a disaster of our own making

Mike Rowse says officials must start talking - and listening - to legislators

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 June, 2013, 11:38am

How on earth did a simple matter like donating HK$100 million to relief efforts after the recent deadly earthquake in Sichuan province run off the rails?

The answer is because legislators and the administration are not talking to each other. They are engaging in what the French call un dialogue des sourds - a conversation between deaf people. Or even not talking at all.

The people of Sichuan are our neighbours and friends. Of course we should help them after they suffer a disaster. The sum involved is modest and well within our means. Little brother Macau has already posted a cheque for a similar amount. For big brother Hong Kong to do the same should not be in the least controversial.

But - and it is a big but - we all remember that after we helped out last time, there was some questionable spending. A school built with our taxpayers' money was reportedly demolished a few months later to make way for a luxury housing project.

So how the money gets spent is potentially controversial and there is a need for stringent monitoring. The danger of corrupt officials getting a share of the action is real.

All this is patently obvious. Given the natural urge to provide assistance quickly, the next step should have been to urgently contact leaders of all the main political parties and hammer out a consensus. Is everyone OK with the amount? Give it all in a lump to the provincial authorities, or split it with some experienced non-governmental organisations?

Yet all the signs are that no such meeting was convened, nor was there even an attempt to reach out to all concerned by phone. Instead, the proposal was simply pushed out the day before a Finance Committee meeting, for a vote the next day. Is anyone surprised legislators did not respond well to such high-handed behaviour? My concern here is twofold. Instead of presenting ourselves as generous willing donors to help our fellow citizens in their hour of need, we come across as a bunch of grudging scrooges. That diminishes our reputation in others' eyes, and will surely come back to bite us when we need help in future.

Bad though this is, there is an even more important issue that needs to be addressed urgently. For it is apparent that this is a systemic problem: it has happened before.

Last year, a perfectly reasonable and well-supported plan to create a minister for culture got nowhere. Similarly, a sensible idea to separate transport issues from housing policy died on the vine.

Why? Because the administration-elect attempted to ride roughshod over Legislative Council members and insisted on making the changes part of a complex package which also included other more controversial ideas and ramming the whole thing through in double-quick time.

The officials concerned failed to take the pulse of Legco, went for all or nothing and got precisely zip. And let's not even talk about national education.

There is a disconnect somewhere. The Leung team is coming up with a string of (mostly) sensible ideas but struggling to get them approved. Some blame the pan-democrats, accusing them of automatically opposing anything put forward by the government.

I also criticise some members of that camp when they deserve it. The ongoing filibuster of the budget, for example, is senseless and a waste of time.

But the administration must accept its share of responsibility. Who is responsible for liaison with the legislature, for reporting back on the public mood? Who is authorised to make a deal when necessary?

Both sides need to start talking to and listening to each other. Or at the very least hire some political lip-readers.

Mike Rowse is the search director of Stanton Chase International and an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. mike@rowse.com.hk