SCMP Published on Sunday, July 2, 2000


Tung still says 'no minister'


Even before the handover, there were widespread predictions about the inevitability of a ministerial system. Commentators, including this one, forecast that the introduction of some form of political appointment method was only a matter of time. After all, it has been clear for almost a decade that the present system was becoming hopelessly outdated.

Asking professional civil servants to perform political functions that anywhere else in the world would be entrusted to elected ministers might have made some sense in the early colonial days. But certainly not since the advent of direct elections in 1991, especially as these have made it increasingly difficult for the Government to be assured of majority support in the Legislative Council.

After the handover, predictions of a ministerial system intensified, especially after Tung Chee-hwa's appointment of an Executive Council that seemed to mark a move in this direction, with several councillors being given policy portfolios, such as surveyor Leung Chun-ying's responsibility for housing issues.

Last week, such forecasts were on a crescendo after the legislators' vote of no confidence in two top housing officials conclusively demonstrated the inadequacies of the present system, as well as the apparent inevitability of change. With even Chief Secretary for Administration Anson Chan Fang On-sang now hinting there "may well" be merit in a ministerial system, it is tempting to conclude - as many seem to have done in recent days - that the momentum in this direction has finally assumed irresistible force.

But to do so is to ignore the immovable object that stands in the way - in the shape of a stubborn Chief Executive.

Never mind the compelling need for change, not to mention the increasing problems that sticking with the present system will cause, as was highlighted by Legco's 39-9 vote against Housing Authority chairwoman Rosanna Wong Yick-ming and Director of Housing Tony Miller, and the Government's prompt rejection of the result.

As many frustrated civil servants can testify, such logic counts for little when Mr Tung sets his mind against something. The Chief Executive has repeatedly stated that he is not prepared to countenance a ministerial system, nor is it easy to envisage him ever entirely abandoning his opposition to such a radical step. Mr Tung may be keen to push through sweeping reforms in the social arena, so prompting the recent protests by doctors and teachers. But when it comes to constitutional issues he is more cautious, as shown by his reluctance to embrace greater democracy.

In recent days, he may have conceded that the present system "has some shortcomings" and that "serious thinking" may be necessary about whether there is a need for change. But it is unlikely that such generally phrased remarks represent any real change in his stance on the issue.

Once the present furore has died down, and the no-confidence vote has faded from the headlines, the odds are that Mr Tung will bury the issue once again.

The arguments in favour of a ministerial system may be compelling, but it is unlikely to happen under this Chief Executive. Since he is widely expected to serve a second term, that means Hong Kong will probably have to wait until at least 2007 before it gets a political structure that makes more sense.