Democrats' muddled manifesto

by Philip Bowring


SCMP September 6, 2004

It is right that the Legislative Council election should be mainly about democracy, liberty, accountability, autonomy and the Basic Law. Without that emphasis, there can be no hope that Hong Kong people will wrest power from the cabal of nepotistic business and bureaucratic interests now in charge - with help from mainland apparatchiks and triad-associated thuggery.
However, the democratic camp might have done a better job of focusing on economic issues as well. Democracy is a means to an end.

It is no surprise that the Liberal Party scarcely has a platform beyond the status quo, which has suited it very nicely, providing its business interests with an "executive-led" shield against the sort of competition that would pressure the profits of the oligopolies.

It is no surprise that the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, while mouthing communist cant about representing the working class, in practice goes along with the above, particularly when the instant-billionaire beneficiaries are connected to party luminaries.

The problem with the Democratic Party manifesto is that good ideas in the 10-page section on economy-related matters are interleaved with meaningless platitudes and some idiocies. Party manifestos necessarily seek the broadcast common denominators, and to offend the smallest number of people. However, the Democrats should have had a better-focused economic agenda and backed it up with more-specific examples of why the present government policies are economically inefficient, as well as damaging to the majority.

For example, the demand for a competition policy is correct. But why not be specific about some of the current beneficiaries of its absence - ParknShop and Wellcome, for a start? The anti-competitive policies of property developers which also own management companies, telecom suppliers, shopping centres, and the like, are well known. Spell them out. Do not just say the issue must be studied. The manifesto does mention the need for an open-skies aviation policy, and the container port monopoly, but not the anti-competitive behaviour most directly damaging to consumers.

The manifesto wants to "improve corporate governance". Fine, but its proposals are so mild that they could have been drafted by the incumbent monopolist, Hong Kong Exchange. Why not spell out examples of recent rip-offs, and show how to prevent these recurring?

Why do democrats not demand that the full force of ICAC powers confront un-transparent deals such as Cyberport, or find out why well-pensioned civil servants collect private-sector sinecures for which they have scant obvious qualification?

The party's opposition to the proposed goods and services tax is bold. But it is lost in a mass of verbiage. It also sounds potentially irresponsible when put together with its opposition to any tax increases and desire to put the attainment of a balanced budget back to the 2009-10 financial year.

On land and housing, the manifesto is a muddle, trying to appeal both to those who want "stabilisation" - that is, higher prices engineered by land sales manipulation - and those who want a genuinely free market. Thus, it concludes by demanding stable supply, while saying "meanwhile, it is advisable to keep the application-list system".

Democrats could have made more impact if they had stopped trying to be all things to all people and zeroed in with hard-hitting policies on: monopolies and competition; the goods and services tax, a regressive tax which would exacerbate Hong Kong's already appalling income mal-distribution; land supply and planning policy as keys to housing, environment and public transport; and power company emissions rules, which make public health secondary to monopoly profits and the motor trade.

That manifesto would win any fair election. But we do not have one.




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