Keep public consultation serious and transparent

Peter Kammerer says public consultation needs to be more transparent, and reserved for only the most important community issues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 6:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 2:20am

Those of us who pay taxes, vote and obey laws should have already fulfilled our civic duties. Not so, says the government. We also need to participate in public consultations: lots of them. With the recent closing of one on intangible cultural heritage, there are 10 to make views known on.

Participation is not compulsory in our society of part-democracy. Nor would many of us have an interest in much of what gets put forward. Elsewhere, they would be capably handled by lawmakers and civil servants. But Hong Kong is awash with public funds and governed by people unwilling to make the decisions they are paid so handsomely to carry out.

I long believed authorities thought the consultations were necessary to compensate for the lack of full universal suffrage. But when the narrowly focused topics of some of the consultations are considered, this can hardly be the reason. One at the moment, for renewal of PCCW's domestic pay television programme service licence, can be of interest only to subscribers and other TV providers. Deepening the mystery is why the substantially more important matter of which companies should be awarded free-to-air TV licences was left entirely in the hands of the Executive Council.

Questions about whether viewers are satisfied with the programming of TVB and ATV would have not only been informative for authorities, but also made for entertaining reading. I am not so sure that this is what will be obtained from responses to the current opinion-gathering exercises on the "2014 Digital 21 Strategy", the findings of the task force on external lighting, a monorail network for Kowloon East or review of the patent system.

This is not to belittle the public consultation process. The majority of the issues presently open for views are important to Hong Kong and the community. We are also being asked for opinions on a harbourfront authority, population policy, municipal solid waste charging, a long-term housing strategy and testing of people suspected of taking drugs and their referral for treatment. They are all arguably matters worthy of opinion-taking before being considered by policymakers and legislators.

Where it all falls down, though, is that the process lacks transparency. Rarely are we given a detailed breakdown of the responses and how many and who participated. Sometimes, decisions we should have been consulted on are made without public input.

Public consultation could be a worthwhile practice even were we to have universal suffrage - but it should not by any means be a necessity. Rather, it should be reserved for the most important community matters. With lawmakers earning HK$80,000 a month plus expenses and government ministers and civil servants among the highest paid in the world, we should be making people in public office earn what we pay them to do.

If they are unable to deliver, we can let them know what we think of them through the media and other channels of objection; when we get to elect them, they can be thrown out of office. Stumping up even more than we already do through holding unnecessary consultations wastes valuable time and resources.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post