I am inclined to give a high mark to the 2017 Policy Address, at least a B, maybe even a B plus.
OK, so the title was a bit cheesy – "We Connect for Hope and Happiness" – but the overall spirit and theme were definitely in the right area.
Take the timing and setting. By bringing the speech back to its traditional October date as members had requested, chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngoh was giving face to the legislative council. After all, the main purpose is to set out the government’s priorities for the year, almost all of which will require either legislation or funding approval, or both. It is surely more appropriate to do this at the first session of the legislative year so that members have a good picture of the overall workload coming their way.
Restricting the content to major themes and principles enabled the speech to be delivered in less than an hour, with all the nuts and bolts of government activities set out in a separate document. This was surely a welcome break from tradition, as many past speeches came across more like a shopping list than a thoughtful political treatise. Our legislators should be preserving their stock of stamina for the substance of the job, not fighting off yawns. Lam’s manner and bearing also pointed towards a more cooperative approach rather than the guerrilla warfare of recent years.
Most important, the overall spirit permeating the speech was one of optimism and determination to act in all the many aspects of life of concern to Hong Kong citizens. Yes, there are problems and challenges we must face. But we have the resources to address them and a new-found willingness to draw on our copious fiscal reserves to do so.
The chapter on governance pointed to an enhanced role for the government in social and economic development, matched by provision of additional staff for the purpose. It was refreshing to note the implied admission that more duties and more demand for services will require more people to do the work. No more pretending that an overstretched civil service can find unlimited efficiencies. The section also included a specific commitment to finally extend key sections of the Prevention of Bribery Ordinance to the post of chief executive, a recommendation first put forward many years ago but left to gather dust on the shelf.
The chapter on the economy was full of ideas and initiatives, with money set aside to implement them where necessary. To be frank I do not agree with the detail of some of the proposals, but I very much endorse the idea that we cannot just stand still, squirrelling away fiscal reserves while waiting for "the market" to fix everything pretty much by itself. The government does need to be more proactive, be more of a facilitator and promoter and less of a passive observer stepping in only when things go demonstrably wrong.
Particularly welcome was the decision to put on one side "for the time being" the proposal to use the site of the Wanchai Sports ground to expand the existing Convention and Exhibition Centre. At a time when incidence of diabetes is rising, and there is an increasing problem of child obesity, it was scandalous to suggest scrapping a facility extensively used by schools on Hong Kong Island without proper reprovisioning. Linking the future expansion to a comprehensive redevelopment of the area, including one hopes a thorough traffic assessment, will take much longer but is surely more sensible.
The education chapter touched all the right buttons. The proposed doubling of places for children with special needs was a welcome feature and the common sense approach to understanding Chinese history tiptoed delicately around a tricky area.
Other chapters dealt well enough with traditional livelihood and other issues. The ideas for tackling our appalling housing situation were somewhat limited, but at least there were signs of creativity and determination. In a wealthy modern society there should be no place for apartments the size of a coffin.
In some ways, the best part of the speech was what wasn’t mentioned: there was no reference at all to the nonsensical idea of independence. This was surely a stroke of genius: why provide oxygen and kindling for a fire that has mostly gone out by itself? There was similar skill on display in covering the Article 23 legislation and political reform issues: yes, we need to do them, but we need a better political atmosphere in which to make meaningful progress.
A speech of this calibre should go some way towards creating such an atmosphere. On reflection, a definite B plus.