Rule by gesture, not meaningful policy
SCMP October 25 2009
Gesture politics by the administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang
Yam-kuen has reached a new low. Meanwhile, the implementation of policies
announced long ago continues to be stymied as interest groups manipulate
an increasingly politicised bureaucracy - note that the latest two
deputy ministers are from the civil service, which combines timidity
towards the powerful and arrogance towards the weak.
Just look at this proposal to induce households to save electricity
by using low-energy light bulbs. This typically convoluted plan will,
at best, have marginal impact on power consumption, and hence air pollution,
but involve much bureaucracy and probably create opportunities for
Household lighting is a minor use of power. Households account for
only 25 per cent of power usage and most of that is for appliances
such as televisions and air conditioning. There is one very simple
way of reducing power consumption in a way that is both equitable and
effective: tax it.
It may be too late, given the new scheme of control, to force the
power companies to clean up their acts faster. But doubtless they can
be paid to speed up their efforts and switch away from coal. The bottom
line is that much could easily be done to cut power-related pollution
if the government had the will to push meaningful policies instead
of public relations gestures.
Unfortunately parties in the Legislative Council have, as all too
often, missed the main point and gone chasing marginal issues - that
there might be some conflict of interest because a Tsang relative deals
in light bulbs. Indeed, one could go further and argue that this episode
has shown up the inadequacy of a Legco that so often seems devoid of
positive proposals, other than on constitutional issues.
Gesture politics was earlier evident with the 'no-car' day, with some
bureaucrats taking public transport to work for a day to 'help' the
environment. Meaningful policies would start with the government charging
its employees market rates for the huge number of car park spaces at
government offices. Upper level servants seem to think they deserve
tycoon treatment. No wonder they are determined to spend HK$16 billion
on the Central-Wan Chai Bypass, a road that will benefit few but add
significantly to inner-city pollution.
As for failure to implement announced policies lest the government
confront vested interests, look at the fishing industry. The industry
now only survives thanks to sideline activities - not all legal - and
subsidies. Last year it was announced (a decade after the mainland)
that Hong Kong would impose strict controls on fishing and greatly
reduce the number of trawlers by buying out the owners and retraining
crews. But nothing has happened.
Reducing the fishing fleet would also cut air pollution, a significant
portion of which comes from ships. But again, official efforts are
mostly gestures. The international shipping lines on which Hong Kong
depends for its trade are set up to use low-sulphur fuel and willing
to follow strict regulations. But the government dare not take on the
ferry and coastal vessel operators that cause most of the pollution.
This is another issue, like health care reform or a minimum wage, left
in the 'too hard' basket by officials-turned-politicians who talk about
'executive-led' government but, in practice, are led by the nose by
Gestures like banning smoking in public parks are made, but meanwhile
the much greater damage to community health goes ignored. Ministers
and senior officials frequently tour foreign countries, supposedly
to learn new ideas. So how come Hong Kong has fallen so far behind
Sydney, Singapore, Seoul, Taipei, Tokyo and almost every city in Europe?
How come the world's highest paid top officials are so incapable of
decisive action unless ordered by Beijing or having their arms twisted
by local conglomerates?
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