Heartless treatment of Lamma ferry victims' families shames government

Albert Cheng says lack of an apology and the internal inquiry into Marine Department's failings show that officials are protecting their own

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 May, 2013, 5:21am

The release of a detailed report by an independent commission into last October's Lamma ferry disaster should have brought the saga to a close, but the handling of the aftermath by the government has been disappointing.

It has infuriated many, especially the families of the victims. They were particularly angered by the fact that Director of Marine Francis Liu Hon-por apparently knew nothing of the department's "systemic failings" which had contributed to the tragedy in which 39 people died when two vessels collided. And to add salt to the wounds, Liu didn't even make a public apology to the families. Their anger is understandable.

The families wrote to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, questioning the professionalism of some officers in the Marine Department and demanded that the government hold the department responsible. But, in return, all they got was a lukewarm bureaucratic response from the chief executive's private secretary, that sounded like a carbon copy of an earlier press release. Leung didn't bother to write to the families himself.

The letter followed the official line that the Marine Department attaches great importance to the views and recommendations of the commission of inquiry in its report, and will follow them up in a full and earnest manner, etc, etc. How callous. The government has disregarded the feelings of its people, preferring to protect its own kind at the expense of the public good.

Some have speculated that the government's refusal to apologise for the incident is to avoid opening the floodgates to damages claims. But the government is not an individual or a commercial entity. It would be understandable if the administration were to shoulder the blame if one of its departments had made mistakes. And it could certainly afford any payouts that were ordered, especially as it is willing to spend millions of dollars every year on public firework displays during festive times.

By refusing to own up to its mistakes and compensate families of the deceased, the administration looks callous and cruel. It is certainly not the people-focused, caring government that it perceives itself to be.

Furthermore, the ongoing internal investigation pledged by the government following the inquiry's report is nothing more than self-preservation, with its own people investigating its own people. How independent and reliable can such an inquiry be? One thing is for sure - we will never get to the bottom of things this way.

The deputy director of marine, Ivan Tung Hon-ming, has been assigned to head the internal inquiry. Yet, senior marine staff will not be questioned unless new information comes to light, according to Secretary for Transport and Housing Professor Anthony Cheung Bing-leung. That means Liu, and for that matter Tung, will not be investigated, as simple as that.

I have reservations about any internal investigations, but at least the inquiry by the Independent Commission Against Corruption into alleged overspending of public funds by its former commissioner, Timothy Tong Hin-ming, appears to be better managed.

In order to appear whiter than white, the justice secretary issued a directive requiring ICAC investigators to fulfil three requirements: they should not have attended any functions or activities organised by Tong; they should have no direct or indirect personal association with him outside work duties; and there should be no practical or perceived conflict of interest in the course of investigation.

The Marine Department's internal inquiry certainly pales by comparison in terms of transparency, level of authority, and degree of impartiality.

One important factor that shouldn't be overlooked is that the focus of the investigation is not only limited to the two vessels involved, but more than 300 vessels that have been examined by the department; their safety standards and seaworthiness are now in doubt.

The professionalism of those involved in dealing with all these vessels has been called into question. Everyone in the Marine Department is somehow involved, to varying degrees, so it's definitely inappropriate for it to conduct its own investigation.

Simply put, the government has been unsympathetic to the families of victims and irresponsible in its handling of the aftermath of the tragedy. Thus far, only the captains of the two boats are facing criminal charges. The government has shielded the Marine Department from being accountable for the tragedy, despite the fact that it has failed abysmally in upholding its role as inspector, regulator and prosecutor.

With this heartless behaviour, it's no wonder the government's approval rating has plummeted to a new low of less than 30 per cent in the latest findings, while public disapproval levels have shot up to a new high of more than 50 per cent.

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