The government's five-month consultation on political reform is costing taxpayers more than HK$7 million - and lawmakers on all sides are wondering whether the cash is being spent wisely.
Since its launch in December, the exercise has had a high profile, with colourful leaflets and advertisements encouraging the public to give their views on arrangements for the 2017 election for chief executive and the 2016 Legislative Council poll. The material and accompanying website, under the slogan "Let's talk and achieve universal suffrage", prominently feature the three officials heading the consultation, led by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
But Beijing loyalist Paul Tse Wai-chun called the budget "excessive", while the Civic Party's Dr Kenneth Chan Ka-lok said the exercise felt more like an "advance election campaign" for Lam's mooted 2017 candidacy.
The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau has set aside HK$7.3 million for the consultation in the fiscal year that ends next month; HK$4.4 million was spent on a similar exercise in 2009/10. But as the consultation runs until early May, the final bill is likely to be higher still. No breakdown of the figures was available as the consultation was still under way, the bureau said.
The government set aside just HK$4 million in 2004 for the first phase of consultation, ahead of elections in 2007 and 2008.
Lessons from the last consultation on reform suggest the bill will get even higher when the government comes up with a firm proposal, expected at the end of this year, and launches a second round of consultation.
In 2010, the government of chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen spent almost twice as much on the second round of consultation as it did on the first, with its HK$9 million "Act Now" campaign. Officials took to the streets to chant slogans in support of their reform plan, but public feedback was mixed and lawmakers condemned the government for spending big on political advertising.
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, said it was understandable the administration would devote more resources to the consultation as the 2017 election would be the first time the city chose its leader by universal suffrage, a matter of great public interest.
The debate had centred on whether the public will have a role in nominating candidates, or whether only the nominating committee stipulated in the Basic Law will choose hopefuls, as Beijing officials and loyalists insist.
Choy said the publicity effort had been about nothing more than slogans and had not clearly explained the reform process.
"Why don't they publicise more of the legal issues and principles [of reform] instead of simply reiterating the tone of the central government?" Choy asked.
Choy said the government should also take the initiative and gauge opinion from local political scientists and legal scholars, as former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen did during the previous consultation exercise.