Plug the loopholes in Hong Kong’s system of accountability
Public has the right to expect that those responsible for the lead-in-water scandal will face disciplinary action
The political fallout from the lead-in-water scandal has been simmering for so long that it probably did not need a full inquiry to apportion blame. Yet as soon as an independent investigation issued a damning verdict on the fiasco, officials blatantly sought to excuse themselves from any individual responsibility. The response fell short of the expectations of an administration that claims to be accountable to the people.
The accountability question has been weighing heavily since the tap water in some new public housing estates was found to be tainted with lead last summer. Although the inquiry stopped short of recommending punishment for individuals, the affected residents and the wider community rightly expect more than mere apologies from those who were criticised.
Flanked by the four key officials directly responsible for housing, development and water supply, Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said there was no evidence of a single official committing serious mistakes. As it was a collective failure, no individual should therefore be held responsible, she said. Lam’s response does not square with the apologies from her team. If they thought they were not to blame, what did they apologise for? Was it just to appease the public?
The chief secretary was only half right when she blamed the system. But it has to be asked who allowed the system to be broken to such an extent. The systemic faults identified in the inquiry did not emerge on their own. They were accumulated through years of inaction and buck-passing among those responsible. As succinctly summed up in the report, the so-called multi-barrier checking system turned out to be toothless and under which one party simply passed the duty of supervision to another. Also toothless is the political accountability system for principal officials. Introduced in 2002 in the wake of the public housing short-piling scandal, the system is meant to hold ministers accountable for their mistakes. But it remains the reality that political appointees often get off scot-free when a scandal is brought to light. Resignations or disciplinary action are rare.
A lead-in-water crisis in a US city saw several local and federal officials forced to resign earlier this year. Regrettably, that culture has yet to take roots here. Currently, there are two separate mechanisms to deal with the conduct of political appointees and civil servants. But the spirit should be the same. They have to be held accountable for their mistakes.