Will Hong Kong see the Carrie Lam honeymoon last?
Mike Rowse says the inclusive style of the new chief executive sets her apart from her predecessor, and, until the uproar over the disqualification of four lawmakers, the way the pan-democrats had responded shows respect begets respect
Almost all incoming heads of government get a grace period while they are settling into their new position. How leaders use this “honeymoon” spell creates the mood for their term of office. The difference in style between Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying, could hardly be sharper.
Between his surprise victory in March 2012, and formally taking up office on July 1 that year, Leung went all out to bulldoze some quick wins through the Legislative Council. He sent top aide Fanny Law Fan Chiu-fun to make the case for the creation of four new minister posts, one each for culture and technology, plus two deputies to underpin the chief secretary and financial secretary. While there was considerable support for the first two, many members had reservations about the proposed new deputies.
Watch: Carrie Lam attends first Legco Q&A session as chief executive
Then Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah-kit made a compromise offer: his party would support the posts for culture and technology, but wanted more time to consider the other two. After consulting her boss, Law rejected the deal, it was to be all or nothing. In the event, it was nothing, and indeed it was another three years before the technology post could be created. Culture and the deputies sank without a trace.
The outcome was not just a defeat for Leung, the manner of it created ill feeling which lingered throughout the next five years.
Now consider how Lam handled her honeymoon period. In the interim before being sworn in, she kept mostly silent, but, as soon as the ceremony was over, came out all guns blazing with her HK$5 billion spending package on education. It is easy to be cynical and say if you are spending money you are bound to be popular. That would be simplistic and unfair. After all, Leung’s proposal would also cost money. The perception in the earlier case was that the proposal was to reward political allies, while Lam’s was derived from a wish list people in the sector had been talking about.
Thus, on a radio talk show a few days later, the president of the Professional Teachers’ Union was praising the scheme, the chairman of the Education Policy Concern Organisation said it hit all the right buttons, a school principal came on air and said this was just what she needed, and so it went on. Finally, a legislator normally critical of the administration said she thought her colleagues would have no difficulty supporting the package, and so it proved.
The education panel nodded it through, and the Finance Committee – so often the scene of filibusters in recent years – was poised to do the same.
The lessons to be learned from this exercise are many, and important for Lam’s term. Be humble, listen carefully, consider thoroughly, then present your plan in a respectful way. Lam’s first appearance in the full Legco itself for a question and answer session was also instructive. She stood to the president’s right, rather than in front, as if to say “thank you for inviting me into your house”. It had already been announced that the policy address would revert from January to the first session of the legislative year in October.
In other words, the chief executive will be setting out her plans and priorities for the year to Legco members first. If you show respect, you are more likely to be shown respect in turn. Was it really so surprising that so many legislators, including several pan-democrats, stood up on Lam’s entry into the chamber?
Can the honeymoon mood last? After all, Lam still has to deal with a sizeable number of problems left over from the Leung era. The court ruling on Friday that disqualified four pan-democratic lawmakers for improper oath-taking, which has already thrown Legco into disarray, is but one example.
It’s vital Lam keeps her focus on achievable goals. No doubt her first policy address will feature her campaign pledge to implement changes to the anti-graft laws to extend to the chief executive those provisions from which he is at present excluded. This was recommended by a committee some years ago, but never given priority by Leung. It is the right thing to do, and it will be popular.
With the wind in her sails, Lam should be able to get support for the common sense co-location at the high-speed train terminal. There will also be a determined push to end the scandalous MPF offset arrangement. With a track record of positive achievement, Lam will be well-positioned to ride out the inevitable storms ahead.
Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises. firstname.lastname@example.org