EVERY night the same message flashes across Hong Kong's television screens: ''If you want your government to listen, make yourself heard.'' The slogan is part of a concerted government voter registration campaign, aimed at averting a humiliatingly low turnout in the three sets of elections to be held over the next 16 months. But academics and observers fear the drive may be undermined by growing public distrust of politicians following a recent controversy over councillors' abuse of personal allowances. Already some are saying tighter controls on politicians' expense accounts are not enough to restore public confidence; instead, a mechanism is needed to allow the dismissal of those who lose their constituents' trust. The disquiet began last year when, despite opposition in public opinion polls, legislators voted themselves a 123 per cent increase in their personal allowances. As a result of the vote, since last May legislators have been able to claim $63,000 a month in office expenses, on top of a $10,000-a-month travelling and entertainment allowance. Outrage over the increases gained further steam after revelations that appointed legislator Timothy Ha Wing-ho used his expense money to buy an electronic bible, Nikon Zoom F2.8 camera lens, and a copy of the novel Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years. No sooner had Mr Ha agreed to repay part of the money, than doubts were raised about fellow councillor Alfred Tso Shiu-wai's use of his allowance to pay for an office that also housed his own businesses. Mr Tso last week insisted he had done nothing wrong, while other legislators treated with contempt attempts to query their expenses. One said he was too busy playing mahjong to answer any questions on the issue. The doubts have since spread to include at least one District Board member. But the worst may be yet to come. Legislators are seeking yet another salary increase and public resentment seems set to turn into outright hostility. Councillors have proposed to an independent commission that their pay be linked to that of senior civil servants. The commission, headed by University of Hong Kong Vice-Chancellor Professor Wang Gungwu, is expected to report in June. Already pressure groups are preparing to fight the proposed pay rise, with the recently formed Voters Monitoring Legislators taskforce accusing councillors of ''double standards''. Taskforce convenor Fok Chi-ying said legislators were only too happy to oppose public transport fare increases above the rate of inflation, while using the independent commission as an excuse to justify their own salary increases. There are also early indications of political parties entering the fray. The 12-strong taskforce, formed earlier this year, is largely composed of members of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, although it has no official links with the pro-China party. With attention focused on abuses, the question being asked is: who watches the watchdogs? The Legislative Council may act as a watchdog over the Government, scrutinising government spending through its Finance Committee, and occasionally even rejecting funding requests. But, until now, there has been no one to watch over the Legislative Council, and to challenge or reject its expense claims. The recent revelations have come mainly through the media. The only other monitoring of legislators' conduct is done by a handful of small pressure groups. But not to be outdone, the legislators have set up a three-member panel, headed by Legislative Council President John Swaine, to give advice on the issue. They have also asked Director of Audit Brian Jenney to scrutinise their claims. He has agreed but is not yet sure of the ambit of the review. A Sunday Morning Post investigation of the 56 files of legislators' expense claims, kept on the fourth floor of the Central Government Offices, revealed information supplied by legislators to justify their expenses ranged from nothing to detailed accounts of every penny spent. Legislators spend their money on things ranging from expensive private consultants to an extensive array of staff. Although legislators have already agreed their expense claims should be open to public inspection - save for details of staff salaries - they differ on the extent to which this should happen. At one end of the scale, independent legislator Emily Lau Wai-hing produced a record 62-page report on her monthly expenses last May. Her monthly expense accounts are usually 20 to 30 pages long, and include the salaries of all her staff. At the opposite extreme, functional constituency representative Philip Wong Yu-hong, also a newly appointed member of the Preliminary Working Committee, claimed the maximum $63,000 monthly allowance without offering any explanation. Mr Wong attached only a single receipt, issued by his own company, Winco Paper Products. When approached by the Sunday Morning Post to give a breakdown on his expenses, he lost his temper. ''Is there any problem? I am busy playing mahjong and am not available to answer your questions,'' he said, before hanging up the telephone. ''What I've put down is completely correct: no more details need to be added,'' he said later. Other councillors, such as appointed member Henry Tang Ying-yen of the Liberal Party, also provided few details. His file contains monthly claim forms for the maximum $63,000 for staff costs and $10,000 for travelling and entertainment expenses. There are no receipts.. When pressed, Mr Tang told the Sunday Morning Post the $63,000 allowance helped pay the salaries of ''two highly qualified Legco assistants''. The appointed legislator supported greater openness on legislators' expenses, but insisted the present system of itemising claims was adequate. Even less information is available in the file of fellow appointed legislator Martin Barrow, also director of Jardine Matheson, whose file is completely empty. MR Barrow said he had been too busy to claim any expenses so far. However he intended to back date his claims to May last year, since the Government had confirmed there was no time limit on this. Questions have also arisen over legislators' use of public funds to employ private consultants. While councillors continually criticised the Government for spending millions on consultants, especially in areas such as the new airport and container terminal, the Sunday Morning Post found that nine functional constituency legislators used their public allowances to pay for consultant companies. With monthly payments ranging from $6,000 to $30,000, taxpayers are contributing approximately $200,000 a month towards these firms. Four Liberal Party legislators even employed the same consultants, Foundation Consultancy, paying retainers totalling $100,500 a month for their services. Dr Conrad Lam Kui-chun said the lack of a research support team in the Liberal Party was the main reason for employing the consultancy. However, the consultants appear to provide services similar to those of Legislative Council assistants: they prepare speeches, read council papers and newspapers, and keep legislators briefed on the latest issues. Another potential waste of public funds are the 10 offices provided for legislators but left vacant in the government office premises in Ice House Street. Totalling approximately 1,500 square feet in the heart of Hong Kong's most expensive business district, they could provide a rental income of around $720,000 a year for the Treasury, according to a property expert. Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood chairman Frederick Fung Kin-kai admitted his 150 sq ft government office was mainly used for storing old files. But he disagreed legislators were abusing the privilege of having office space. ''The Government granted these offices to legislators. Even if I don't use it, the Government will not take it back or give it to other officials.'' Legislators are not the only ones in the firing line. Questions have also been raised about district board members' use of public funds. Elected Kwai Tsing District Board member Lee Kin-sang only shows up for district board meetings once every six months. Under existing laws, a district board member can only be disqualified if he has been continuously absent from meetings for six months. A government spokesman told the Sunday Morning Post the administration had difficulty contacting Mr Lee because his phone and pager number had been changed. He said the only way to get in touch with Mr Lee was to hold back his expense payments until he turned up to claim them. It is estimated Mr Lee has received more than $300,000 from the Government, in connection with his district board membership. The first test of the impact of the allowance issue on voters' opinions is expected to come with the District Board elections in September. Mr Kam Ping-kwong, university lecturer with the Department of Applied Social Studies at City Polytechnic, said Mr Lee's case could undermine public confidence in elected representatives and might discourage voting in the forthcoming elections. He urged the Government to consider seriously the introduction of a mechanism to dismiss politicians caught abusing their positions, rather than waiting for the election process to weed them out. ''If you don't have the right to dismiss them, then the right to vote is meaningless,'' Mr Kam said. He suggested voters should also have the right to cast a vote against uncontested candidates who, at present, are automatically elected. He said the public was unsure of its right to monitor elected representatives and that more funds should be spent on civic education. Academics believe the controversy over councillors' expenses will affect their current campaign for a pay rise. Mr Li Pang-kwong, lecturer of Lingnan College in Political Science, said legislators would face huge pressure in the forthcoming salary review. ''After the recent controversial cases, people will think legislators already have $73,000 in monthly expenses and could mistakenly think that it is being spent on their private use,'' he said. ''Then they will question why legislators have to ask for a salary increase.'' Legislators want their salaries raised and pegged to the Government's directorate pay scale in order to secure public recognition of their workload and importance in the political system. The 10-point directorate scale has a starting salary of $66,800 compared to the present legislators' salary of $43,250 a month. Mr Li said there should be stricter guidelines on legislators' use of expenses. ''The Government cannot ask for every detail about Legco members' expenses. In that case, the use of the funds will mainly depend on the self-restraint of the legislator.'' Mr Li said the only monitoring mechanism at present was the media. ''It is a very strong weapon, and will place pressure on a legislator, even affecting their chances of being elected again.'' He said the present political system was partly to blame for the controversy: ''We have different types of legislators, some are accountable to an electorate of 300,000, while others, like appointed members have no constituency at all. So, some may feel they have not got enough to cover their expenses, while others have some to spare for trivial uses.'' HE added: ''In fact the ethics among legislators vary. An indirectly elected legislator may think that spending $70,000 public funds a month is a very small amount, but a directly elected one will think it is substantial.'' Mary Yuen, spokesman for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, agreed. ''There would not be any problem over legislators' expenses if all of them were directly elected,'' she said. ''They would use their expenses well as they would have to be accountable to the public.'' The commission is a small Catholic church-funded group which acts as a mini-watchdog over the Legislative Council, conducting annual surveys of legislators' performances and political stances. Ms Yuen also called for tighter guidelines. ''For instance, there should be some rules saying that members have to pay back all the money if their expenses are found to have been misused,'' she said. ''Also, all the facilities they have bought should be returned to the Government if they are not a legislator anymore.'' She suggested there should be some punishment for offending legislators: ''If what they did is very seriously wrong, there should be a mechanism that can force them to step down.''