NO doubt the new Chief Executive of the Provisional Airport Authority (PAA), Dr Hank Townsend, is hoping that if he keeps his head down long enough, public interest in his appointment and the circumstances of his predecessor's precipitate departure will eventually go away. The Government has said it has no intention of making public the reasons behind Mr Richard Allen's premature ride in the ejector seat, or the size of the multi-million dollar golden parachute he was given to ease his fall from the PAA cockpit. The Financial Secretary, Mr Hamish Macleod, in his role as PAA chairman, says this is a confidential matter between an employee and his employer. If the PAA were a private company, Mr Macleod would be right. But the PAA is a publicly-funded organisation which should be accountable to the public and Legislative Council scrutiny. Mr Macleod's explanation may have been perfectly acceptable under a tamer legislature, when its members as late as 1990 had few qualms about sanctioning a $1.6 billion cost overrun for the University of Science and Technology (UST). However, as the Public Accounts Committee's (PAC) belated, but exhaustive, inquiry into the UST debacle shows, legislators are ready to keep harrying officials and executives until the true magnitude of their spending follies is exposed. Mr Macleod has no business pretending the public does not have a right to know. The PAA is a publicly funded concern. Its ultimate shareholders are the taxpayers of Hongkong. Any public company that refused to explain to its shareholders why an expensive Chief Executive had to be paid handsomely to leave would probably have the competency of its board questioned. At issue is not the self-evident right of the public to a straight answer, but how a secretive government is to be persuaded to give one. The United Democrats are demanding the Government reveal the reasons for Mr Allen's departure, the size of the golden handshake, the manner, length and terms of Dr Townsend's appointment, and his exact relationship with the Bechtel Corporation, of which he remains a senior vice-president. All these questions remain the subject of rumour and innuendo. Given that the size of Mr Allen's payoff would have had to reflect the fact that he was appointed to remain in the post until 1997, the Government must reassure the public that the same mistake cannot be made again. Sadly, although the PAC is empowered to summon and demand answers from anyone involved in a Government spending project, it can only do so in response to a report from the Director of Audit. It now emerges that the PAA, like the Mass Transit Railway Corporation, being technically separate from the Government, is not subject to the scrutiny of the Director of Audit and is therefore protected from the penetrating gaze of the PAC. Legislators could do worse than ask why both the PAA and the MTR are exempt from the scrutiny of these two bodies. Legislators are not without the resources to do so. Should the Government attempt to fob them off again, the United Democrats' plan to ask councillors to invoke the Legislative Council allows them to summon officials to explain themselves, if necessary on oath. If the Council does not support them in that, the UDHK may consider blocking the PAA's next request for funds in Finance Committee. The party's support was crucial in pushing through the Government's request for $6.7 billion for the completion of site preparation work last November. As Dr Townsend admitted yesterday, the PAA is committed to returning to the Finance Committee before June 30 to request further funds for staff costs. Conservative legislators who hesitate to use the full force of the Powers and Privileges ordinance may be more comfortable in the Finance Committee, where they have already shown they are willing to attack the Government over its airport spending. Although such moves may further slow progress on the airport, legislators must be prepared to force the Government's hand if necessary. One of the dividends of quickening the pace of democratic development in Hongkong must be to ensure the public accountability of Government. It is time Mr Macleod, the outgoing Secretary for Economic Services, Mrs Anson Chan Fang On-sang, and the other officials and private businessmen on the Airport Authority board recognised that times have changed. The Legislative Council always had the power to make them accountable. Now that legislators are themselves publicly answerable, they have discovered the will to exercise that power.