SCMP Monday, October 9, 2000


Executive decision

Not for the first time, a proposal to reform Hong Kong's political system has been put forward. Sir David Akers-Jones, a former chief secretary in the colonial administration, supports turning executive councillors into quasi-ministers to make the system more accountable.
What the ex-civil servant proposes is not new; the idea has been floated in various shapes and forms over the past few years. But the fact that he has endorsed it is significant. Sir David is among a handful of British administrators who have adopted Hong Kong as home and have opted to stay here after retirement. While liberals may consider his views conservative, he genuinely believes in gradual reforms. As a former Hong Kong affairs adviser, he has the ear of Beijing.
The Basic Law provides that the SAR has a Legislative Council constituted by elections and an accountable executive authority. Sir David's interpretation of the arrangement is that it was meant to transfer responsibility and accountability to the executive authority. The object was to free up civil servants so that they could concentrate on what they know best - shaping new ideas into policies that fit into our legal and administrative framework and bringing forward new laws and administration to match the policies.
However, as evidenced by what has happened since the handover, the problem with such a set up is that no one could be held accountable when something has gone wrong. Even though policies are approved by the Chief Executive and his hand-picked advisers who form the Executive Council, the councillors are non-remunerated part-timers and are not expected to play a political role in selling the policies they approve to the public. Such a task falls on bureau secretaries who are career civil servants. They have had to take the blame for policy blunders not entirely of their making. Tung Chee-hwa has also become an easy target of political criticism and not always fairly.
Sir David's proposal would mean turning the Executive Council into a real cabinet and its members into substantive ministers. While the proposal would not necessarily improve relations between the executive authorities and the legislature, the councillors, made responsible for different policy areas, would help to take the heat off the Chief Executive and shield civil servants from unwarranted slurs.
For all its attractions, only the Chief Executive could make the proposal work. Mr Tung would do well to think seriously about it as he contemplates seeking a second term.