Feel The Love

Almost all incoming heads of government get a grace period while they are settling in to their new position. The individuals and institutions with whom they will interact – in the administration, the legislature, the media and so on – need time to get to know them. How the leaders use this "honeymoon" spell sets the scene and creates the mood for their term of office. The difference in style between chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngor and her predecessor, Leung Chun Ying, could hardly be sharper.

In between his surprise victory in March 2012, and formally taking up office on 1 July that year, Leung went all out to bulldoze some quick wins through the Legislative Council. He sent top aide Fanny Law Fan Chiu Fun to make the case for creation of four new minister posts, one each for Culture and Technology, plus two deputies to underpin the chief secretary and financial secretary. While there was considerable support for the first two new posts, many members had reservations about the proposed two deputies.

Then Civic Party leader Alan Leong Kah Kit made a compromise offer: his party would support the posts for Culture and Technology, but wanted more time to consider the other two. After consulting her boss, Law rejected the deal, it was to be all or nothing. In the event, it was nothing and indeed it was another three years before the Technology post could be created. Culture and the two deputies sank without trace.

The outcome was not just a defeat for Leung, the manner of it created ill feeling which lingered throughout the next five years.

Now consider how Lam handled her honeymoon period. In the interim before being sworn in she kept mostly silent, but as soon as the ceremony was over came out all guns blazing with a $5 billion spending package on education. It is easy to be cynical about this and say well of course if you are spending money you are bound to be popular. That would be simplistic and unfair – after all, Leung’s proposal would also cost money. The perception in the earlier case was that the proposal was to reward political allies, while Lam’s package was derived from a wishlist of things people in the sector had been talking about for years.

Thus on a radio talkshow a few days later, the President of the Professional Teachers Union was praising the scheme, the chairman of the Education Policy Concern Organisation said it hit all the right buttons, a school principal came on air and said this was just what she needed, and so it went on. Finally a legislator normally critical of the administration said she thought her colleagues would have no difficulty supporting the package, and so it proved. The Education Panel nodded it through, and the Finance Committee -- so often the scene of filibusters in recent years-- was poised to do the same.

The lessons to be learned from this exercise are many and important for the future of Lam’s term. Be humble, listen carefully, consider thoroughly, then present your plan in a respectful way. Lam’s first appearance in the full Legco itself for a question and answer session was also instructive. She decided to stand to the President’s right rather than in front of him, as if to say thank you for inviting me into your house. It had already been announced that the Policy Address would revert from January to the first session of the legislative year in October. In other words, the chief executive will be setting out her plans and priorities for the year to Legco Members first. If you show respect, you are more likely to be shown respect in turn. Was it really so surprising that so many legislators, including several pan dems, stood up on Lam’s entry into the chamber?

Can the honeymoon mood be extended into the next Legco term? No doubt Lam’s first Policy Address will feature her campaign pledge to implement changes to the anti graft laws to extend to the chief executive those provisions from which he is at present excluded. This was recommended by a committee chaired by former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok Nang some years ago, but never given priority by Leung. It is the right thing to do, and it will be popular.

With the wind in her sails, Lam should be able to get support for the common sense co-location arrangement at the high speed train terminal. There will also be a determined push to end the scandalous MPF offset arrangement, though some will have reservations over using vast sums of public funds to coddle employers. With a track record of positive achievement, Lam will be well positioned to ride out the inevitable storms ahead.

Honeymoons don’t last forever, but with skill they can be extended, and in any event lay the groundwork for a long term successful relationship.