Agenda Setting

The annual policy address by the chief executive is always important, never more so than when it is the first to be given by a new holder of the position. So when Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngor stands up in the legislative council next month the whole community, and indeed persons outside Hong Kong with an interest in our affairs, should be paying attention. Although we caught a glimpse of her wish list from the manifesto published during the election campaign, this will be the first real opportunity for us to gauge her actual priorities now that she is the incumbent rather than merely a candidate.

There is sure to be something on education, always a subject close to the hearts of Hong Kong parents, and indeed the focus of her first major initiative after taking up residence in Upper Albert Road. Since the five billion dollar reform package promulgated then sailed through a Finance Committee which had been paralysed for months under her predecessor, it would be reasonable to give herself a modest pat on the back for a job well begun.

Housing is the most pressing issue for many families. Prices have gone way beyond all reasonable levels and the situation has led to great divisions in our society between those who acquired a property many years ago and are sitting on huge notional paper gains, and those who are never going to be able to buy at current price levels. If middle class citizens feel the system has frozen them out, their role as the stabilising force of moderation will be at risk. That way lays great danger for our community. It should be a standing source of shame for us all that developers are putting living spaces of less than 150 square feet on the market and finding queues of buyers. Apart from some well flagged palliative measures – inviting NGOs to manage shared apartments at reasonable rentals, for example – we really need a breakthrough in securing the land that already exists or can be created and building homes at prices ordinary people can afford. Imagine the impact on sentiment if the government set a minimum of 500 square feet for apartments it built and offered a few thousand per year for sale at construction cost plus a modest margin, say twenty per cent. The ripple effect through the rest of the market could see a restoration of common sense prices.

Hints have also been dropped that we can expect measures to boost the economy. The problem here is that some of the suggestions put forward seem rather unfocussed. Special tax allowances for research and development, or lower tax rates for profits below a certain threshold, for example, are only going to benefit companies already making a profit. The trickle-down effect of such measures would therefore be limited. Far better would be to use the same public money to help new start-ups launch and have an opportunity to take flight. But there may be some projects where a relatively modest capital injection could have a substantial and long term economic impact. Lam could do worse than to identify some of these.

Nobody comes to office with a completely clean slate of course, because we are all bound to some extent by what was done – and not done – by our predecessors. Lam is therefore going to have to dip her toe into some shark-infested pools that she would probably rather avoid. Top of the list is the thorny subject of independence. It is pointless now to argue whether the problem was created or sustained by those taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. And simply repeating mildly what every thinking person knows – that the notion of independence for Hong Kong is nonsense – will not be enough to satisfy the audience in the north. This is probably the appropriate place to remind our pan democrats that there is an audience to the north. So there will have to be a carefully crafted statement which totally rules out independence while at the same time trying not to trample all over freedom of speech.

This is going to lead Lam into the equally troubled waters of Article 23. Frankly it is ludicrous that 20 years after the establishment of the SAR we have not yet fulfilled our constitutional duty to enact national security laws. We are a mature, sophisticated society with a good appreciation for the rule of law and we know that all the issues are already covered by a mishmash of archaic legislation and common law. And we know that we have it within ourselves to craft a carefully worded bill, or series of bills, to do the job. What holds us back of course is the legacy of the way the mission was so badly botched when it was first attempted in 2003. Will Lam take the plunge here and say the job must at least be started in her administration? Under the auspices of a new Secretary for Justice, perhaps?

Finally, there is no way of avoiding the vexed question of political reform. It is an integral part in the public mind of the other two difficult issues. So Lam will need to strike a careful balance, putting a stop to the childish prattling about independence, and declaring work on national security legislation must begin, while confirming that the door to meaningful reform at both chief executive and legislative council levels is very much open. Wish her luck.