SCMP Thursday, June 21, 2001

'Ministerial' heads on the block


Although Antony Leung Kam-chung came into office as Financial Secretary with much media popularity, his celebrity status might be wearing thin sooner than anyone expects. Mr Leung's visits to poorly housed families and chats with men on the street continue to be photographed and reported, getting coverage in the print media that any politician and top official would envy.
But criticisms have already begun to be aired little over a month after he took up the post on May 1. His support for Mr Tung's running for a second term was seen as a breach of the civil service's neutrality principle. And his request for a highly paid press secretary wasn't too popular with some, either.
Should Mr Leung fall from grace, Hong Kong people ought not to feel stunned. A Hong Kong style "ministerial system" as envisaged by mainstream reformers would entail many short-lived political appointees, or "ministers", coming and going through a revolving door, and Mr Leung might be an unfortunate victim of this political experiment.
After several months of public debate on "political accountability" for principal officials, triggered by Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's Policy Address last year, a mainstream platform for reform appears to have emerged. This calls for the installation of a layer of political appointees, or "ministers". They would be chosen from within the civil service, the business community and professions, and appointed on contract with a specified policy portfolio. Consequently, civil servants would be insulated from political storms and enabled to carry out their duties with stability and political neutrality. The Chief Executive's leadership would be enhanced by a team of "ministers" who would identify with his political vision and policy agenda. They would defend his policies, negotiate with legislators and interest groups, and ultimately take the political heat off the Chief Executive by bowing out when blunders occur.
The notion of political accountability as put forward by Mr Tung has left immense room for interpretation but is seen by mainstream reformers as meaning accountability to the Chief Executive by the top layer of officials, rather than - as the term is commonly understood in developed democracies - accountability to the public by the whole government, including the Chief Executive, the Executive Council and the civil service.
Mr Tung's apparent definition of accountability narrows its conceptual scope and also infers a reform agenda far less profound than it ought to be. It would only solve the governing crisis on the surface but would leave untouched the core problem of governance this administration faces in Hong Kong's post-handover era: the inability of the Government to lead in an increasingly pluralist society that manifests its demands through street protests, media criticism and an antagonistic Legislative Council. What the mainstream reform platform could achieve, at best, is an enhancement of the Chief Executive's leadership by putting up front a few identifiable personalities who could alleviate political agony arising from public discontent. But it would not necessarily improve Mr Tung's ability to govern, because "ministers" appointed on individual merit cannot command the wide social support that Mr Tung badly needs.
Lacking a clear popular mandate obtained through democratic election, what Mr Tung needs is a strong governing coalition with a solid support base. The key to effective leadership in the community lies in the ability to build social consensus and generate public support for government policies. A governing coalition with the inclusion of representatives from major social groups would ensure such support because established interest groups would not treat policy discussions and negotiations merely as a one-off game. Rather, they would opt for long-term co-operation and mutual benefit. Such a coalition would be conducive to effective governance.
The public debate on a "ministerial system" is an opportunity to tackle the deep-rooted governance problem. The need for a governing coalition suggests reformers should not only focus on the terms and contracts of the new "ministers" but also on the sources and procedures of "ministerial" appointments.
In light of the crisis of governance in which this administration is embroiled, three propositions should be seriously considered. First, "ministers" should include representatives from major social groups, including the business sector, trade unions and political parties. Second, major social groups should not be excluded; otherwise, they would continue to challenge the governing coalition. Third, Legco should be given a proper role, either as a source of appointees or as the body for reviewing candidates and ratifying appointments.
The mainstream platform on the "ministerial system" tries to bring in talent with personal merit but not necessarily political clout or effectiveness. It is conceivable that these political appointees would in future become scapegoats for government blunders or Mr Tung's unpopularity. Frequent changes of "ministers" could also further undermine public confidence in the Government.
Hong Kong might have no lack of individuals, such as Mr Leung, who are experienced, talented and prepared to come forward to serve the community. But it would be a pity to see them sacrificed under public pressure just because we rush to settle on an ill-designed "ministerial system" out of short-sightedness.
Kitty Poon is a Hong Kong-based columnist and commentator.