Vested interests win - again

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 October, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2006, 12:00am

I lost count of the number of times the chief executive used the phrase 'strong government' to characterise his administration. One would have to agree with him if, by 'strong', he meant stubbornness in the face of reasoned criticism, recalcitrance towards positive proposals from outside the administration circle, or a rock-ribbed defence of entrenched interests. But if strength means willingness to take bold decisions to address Hong Kong's biggest problems, then forget it.

Donald Tsang Yam-kuen seems to have been determined not to make a splash with his policy speech. It's not only full of the usual platitudes, but most of the items of substance - such as on a minimum wage and the cruise terminal - had already been leaked.

Those leaks appear driven by a desire to test public reaction in advance, and to underline the inevitability of the announced policies - whatever the Legislative Council or the public may think. Either way, they reflect the mix of timidity and arrogance that characterises bureaucrat-led government.

The low-key nature of the speech and its proposals might appear justified in a normal pre-election situation. That is, one in which a government wishes to focus on 'stability and prosperity' rather than announce new initiatives which might be controversial. However, there is almost zero chance now that Mr Tsang will be dumped by Beijing - and even less that he'll be defeated by opponent Alan Leong Kah-kit or anyone else in next year's small-circle election.

So why was there a need for Mr Tsang to demonstrate that he is still in the pockets of very narrow business interests on the crucial issues - pollution and income distribution?

The way Mr Tsang addressed the minimum wage issue clearly shows his lack of leadership ability. He should either reject the idea as contrary to Hong Kong's laissez-faire policy, or bring in a law. Instead, we have a fuzzy, voluntary 'Wage Protection Movement' to be applied to cleaners and guards.

This is the worst possible compromise, and is likely to make the pay gap worse. Large and medium-sized companies will follow the guidelines. But the people who really need help - those working for small sub-contractors or forced to define themselves as self-employed - will get scant relief.

Indeed, their ranks are likely to swell as companies (and the government itself) continue to trim official payrolls and outsource to sub-contractors - with no intention of following voluntary codes.

The speech did promise some additional progress on the pollution front, using government funds to speed the phasing out of old vehicles. But official actions still lag far behind the rhetoric, and there remains no acknowledgement of the costs in public health of failure to act decisively.

Instead, Mr Tsang devoted many condescending paragraphs to the importance of the family.

There was nothing new on the power companies, the appalling pollution created by ferries and other marine traffic using low-grade fuel, and no action on idling engines. Nor was there any suggestion that the road-building mania would stop and Hong Kong follow the example of advanced cities in Europe or Asia.

Mr Tsang gave what was effectively a go-ahead for the cruise terminal, without explaining how much it would cost once the land cost was included. Will this be another Disney, where the government carries the financial burden and gives away land worth billions of dollars - while the private sector gets first access to the cash flow?

In financial services, Mr Tsang said he wants well-established foreign enterprises to be listed in Hong Kong, and a study on developing a commodity futures market. What he didn't mention is that the government controls the monopoly Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing and the Securities and Futures Commission.

Its failures to develop internationally, and in futures, are a direct result of the government putting decision-making in the hands of local vested interests, including members of the Executive Council.

Mr Tsang seems genuinely unable to grasp that the system of supposed consensus and consultation he favours seldom reflects public interests and concerns.

Rather, it reflects the vested interests who are invited to join the advisory panels and quango boards. Hence 'strong' government is static government.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator