Credibility on the line over top postings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 December, 1998, 12:00am

Soon, the Government will announce that it has, or has not, appointed Carson Wen Ka-shuen to the post of Solicitor-General. If the decision goes in his favour, not everyone will be happy.

The disapproval will not come exclusively from the liberal camp, with its visceral distrust of anyone associated with mainland political institutions. Nor will it be confined only to those who believe a Solicitor-General should have the advocacy experience to represent the Government in court, a bill Mr Wen does not fit.

Mr Wen also has another skeleton in his professional cupboard, although it is hardly a secret. In November 1995, he was censured by the Law Society Disciplinary Tribunal for identifying 18 of his clients in a magazine article in breach of the Solicitors' Practice Promotion Code.

Even those who do not see his political background and lack of advocacy experience as problematic may be less willing to accept a censured lawyer. Lawyers are quick to point out that a censure is not, in itself, a barrier to employment. To be censured is not to be struck off or forbidden to practise. It would not, for instance, bar Mr Wen from standing as a candidate for election as Law Society president, let alone applying for a job in government.

If Mr Wen were to stand for president it would be up to individual members to decide if they trusted him to lead the society. Similarly, it is up to the Government to decide whether the episode, which Mr Wen is quite open about, damages his credibility sufficiently to make him a liability.

Hong Kong does not, yet, go in for the kind of destructive examination of public-servants' private lives which can bring down incumbent United States presidents or destroy the careers of leading political figures. If Mr Wen says that nothing ill was intended, we may question his judgment. But we are in no position to judge his integrity.

But the Government does have to approach the decision with a touch more political sensitivity than it would, say, in appointing a junior law officer. And if the Government does take a generous view of Mr Wen's weaknesses, it must make doubly sure there are no doubts over its other appointments.

Unfortunately, this is one of several areas where the administration is accident-prone. The row over the appointment of civil servant Alice Tai Yuen-ying as Ombudsman, despite obvious questions over her suitability for a job that requires her to be a thorn in the Government's flesh - and possibly investigate complaints against a department led by her husband - is only one of a series.

The row over the appointment of a Government Information Co-ordinator at the rank and salary of policy secretary caused a stir the Government had clearly not foreseen.

Questions were also raised about the appointment of Edgar Cheng Wai-kin as the future head of the Central Policy Unit (CPU), while he was still involved in the Commission of Inquiry on the New Airport.

Would his new job at the head of the Government's think-tank make him uncomfortable criticising top officials? There were similar doubts over the appointment to the CPU of the former editor of the mainland-backed Ta Kung Pao, Tsang Tak-sing, who it was felt might have been brought in to represent Beijing's thinking.

Alone, none of these appointments would shake the credibility of a well-trusted and popular government. Taken together they build a picture of insensitivity and even a readiness to overlook possible conflicts of interest that undermine its authority. It might be unfair to make Mr Wen the scapegoat for previous mistakes, but the Government should still think twice before appointing him.