With a monthly salary of HK$282,080 or more, our ministers are perhaps among the best paid politicians in the world. But their fat packages also make them easy targets for public criticism in an ever-demanding society like Hong Kong's. Over the years, the ministers followed the public and private sectors in cutting their own salaries in times of economic downturn. But when their counterparts received pay rises in boom times, they did not benefit and remained the silent minority. They are now due for the first pay increase in a decade. The government proposes raising ministers' pay by 8.1 per cent starting from July. The level appears moderate and reasonable.
The government has sensibly abandoned an independent commission's recommendation of a 15.3 per cent rise, which mirrors the accumulated inflation rate since 2002. Instead, it has pegged the proposed increase to 8.1 per cent - the accumulated rise for top-tier civil servants over the past decade. At the same time, the government proposes a drastic pay cut of up to 40 per cent for the much-criticised political assistants, resulting in a net saving of HK$5 million a year. The pay cut for the lowest tier is a welcome but belated step in response to persistent criticism that the appointees are inexperienced, while the nature of their jobs is too vague. Under the plan, the chief secretary will earn an extra HK$68,325 a month to bring the salary to HK$381,110, while a political assistant will be paid no more than HK$100,000 a month. The pay cut for assistants is expected to help ease opposition to the new pay package.
The government earlier approved a 10 per cent salary increase for lawmakers from October onwards. Separately, a pay survey shows civil servants in the middle and lower pay bands are in line for increases of 5.8 per cent, while the upper band may get 5.26 per cent. As lawmakers and civil servants are set to be given a pay rise later this year, there is perhaps a case for a pay adjustment for political appointees.
For those critical of the performance of our political leaders and civil servants, the proposed pay rises may seem too generous. Taking into account the voluntary pay cut of 5.38 per cent by the appointees since 2009, the new salaries are indeed more than 14 per cent. Regardless of the pay level, people are entitled to expect the best from public servants. As they get their fair share of reward, they are also expected to justify the pay rise with better performance. The political system is expected to evolve further as we move towards the goal of universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020. There is a need for a better way of determining a fair level of pay for political appointees and lawmakers, as well as the appropriate governance structure in the coming years.