SCMP Saturday, June 24, 2000


Legislators deserve no-confidence vote for double standards

The hospital authority is responsible for dispensing drugs and medicine to patients on a daily basis. Let us imagine it discovered that some of the pills it used were not up to prescribed standard. Remedial actions were then taken and fortunately no harm was done. Do you think it would be appropriate for the legislature to cast a vote of no confidence against its chairman, Peter Woo Kwong-ching, and chief executive, William Ho Shiu-wei, and even demand their removal?

The police force has set high ethical standards for its personnel. If a bunch of cops was apprehended for allegedly running an illegal horse-betting racket, should the Secretary for Security, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, and the Commissioner of Police, Eddie Hui Ki-on, be held responsible and denounced for the bad sheep in the force?

The answer to those and similar questions is obviously no. Yet, eager to garner votes for the upcoming Legislative Council polls, lawmakers have taken a rather nonsensical approach in dealing with the Housing Authority controversy. Councillors are eager to treat next week's motion debate on a vote of no confidence against the authority chairwoman, Rosanna Wong Yick-ming, and Director of Housing, Tony Miller, as their last chance to impress the three million registered voters ahead of elections in September.

What have the two housing executives done wrong to deserve such humiliation? They have actually taken the initiative in informing the public of the incidents at some housing estates, in which piling was found to be too short to form solid foundations for the buildings. They also volunteered to name the officials suspected of corruption and negligence. And they sought to impose severe penalties on the developers at fault.

Earlier, Legco also attempted a vote of no confidence against the Secretary for Justice, Elsie Leung Oi-sie. The long-term political ramifications of the issue of judicial independence are more serious than the housing project scandals. But neither the Liberal Party nor the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong was in favour of condemning Ms Leung. That debate was held a comfortable time before the next elections. Some honourable councillors then put aside their personal principles and toed the government line to refrain from censuring Ms Leung. For electoral reasons, however, the same councillors have now made an embarrassing public U-turn about censuring public office bearers, arguing that blaming Ms Wong and Mr Miller is a moral imperative.

These double standards on the part of our so-called voices of the people will inevitably have a bad impact on the future operation of the authority and its executive arm. If the no-confidence motion, sponsored by Democrat Fred Li Wah-ming, is carried and Ms Wong and Mr Miller resign, those who are left to pick up the pieces they leave will be less forthcoming, in order to insulate themselves from the politicians. Like the private developers, they will be inclined to keep the problems away from public scrutiny.

Other public office holders may also consider that the best way to avoid the same fate of trial by legislators would be to do less, thus committing fewer mistakes. That would make it even more difficult for legislators to monitor officials' performances.

Meanwhile, public attention has been diverted from the crux of the matter. Those who are directly accountable for the faulty construction works are given breathing space to regroup and get off the hook, while the standard enforcers are put on trial by the legislature.

Ms Wong and Mr Miller are determined to confront the many problems in the industry, particularly the sub-contractor system, which encourages corruption and poor quality. Unfortunately, their efforts have come too late. Some players in the industry have vowed, both in private and openly, to force the two reformers out.

Given the political climate, with industry and public discontent over the falling value of the property market, the motion is likely to be carried. The legislators are well aware of the possible consequences, but they still choose to put their political careers before the public good. I am not interested in defending Ms Wong or Mr Miller. Indeed, I believe the entire Housing Authority should be held accountable. However, it is crucial that the public know the real motives behind the councillors' actions.

Councillors Law Chi-kwong and Gary Cheng Kai-nam's voluntary resignations from the authority should therefore be applauded. Those councillors who are sitting or have sat on the authority's various committees, such as Edward Ho Sing-tin and Lee Wing-tat, should abstain from voting to avoid any conflict of roles. Since the piling problems date back to a few years ago, current and former members of the authority, including these legislators, should have been well aware of the situation. So the legislators wearing dual hats are by no means innocent.

Only the Democrats and their allies voted against Ms Leung in the previous no-confidence debate. Members of the Liberal Party and the DAB who abstained or voted down that motion against Ms Leung should do the same this time to be consistent. In fact, only the councillors who are not affiliated with the authority and who voted against Ms Leung last time are morally entitled to vote against Ms Wong and Mr Miller this time round. For anybody else to do so is an insult to the intelligence of the electorate.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a broadcaster and former publisher.