No Minister

Does anyone else remember the high hopes Hong Kong’s political aficionados had when the ministerial accountability system was introduced way back in July 2002? In recent years it seems to have fallen into disuse, which is a pity: it would have been really useful if it were still being practised during the controversy over extradition legislation.

The basic idea was simple: all heads of bureau would no longer be civil servants, but political appointees who would report directly to the chief executive who identified them for formal endorsement by the central government. These ministers would then be politically accountable for all matters within their policy area.

The first year and a half of the new system saw a flurry of incidents which fully tested its boundaries. The first was the “Penny Stocks” episode of July that year. The proposal by the Stock Exchange, with the full approval of the Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Frederick Ma Si-hang, was to delist all companies whose shares traded below 50 cents for 30 consecutive days. The proposal was poorly received, panic selling followed and the shares of 17 companies lost 30 per cent of their value.

Eventually the chief executive of the Stock Exchange got the blame. Ma bowed in public by way of apology, but did not offer to resign.

The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome in 2002-03 was the next issue to test the accountability system. Chief executive Tung Chee-Hwa asked the health secretary Dr Yeoh Eng-kiong to reflect on his handling of the situation. Yeoh was heavily criticised for offering what was deemed to be misleading information about the disease. He resigned in 2004 to take responsibility but an official report later cleared all concerned of blame. Yeoh was then honoured with a Gold Bauhinia Star in 2005.

The introduction of draft legislation on national security, to implement Article 23 of the Basic Law, sparked Hong Kong’s largest demonstration since the handover. On 1 July 2003, some half a million protesters marched to show their opposition. The Bill was subsequently withdrawn and the minister, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, resigned though as she had planned to take a sabbatical year for overseas study there was some question over whether there was a direct causal link.

Financial Secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung also resigned in 2003 after it was discovered he had bought a luxury car shortly before finalising a budget proposal to substantially increase vehicle registration tax. This was deemed more of an ethical lapse (he had neglected to report the purchase to the executive council when the matter was discussed) than a policy failure.

Finally there was the Harbour Fest saga. A committee comprising five ministers and two civil servants had endorsed a proposal by the American Chamber of Commerce to organise a series of music concerts as part of the community effort to revive the economy after SARS. The committee approved a subsidy of $100 million for the purpose. Though the concerts were all held as promised, were generally well received, and the subsidy cap was not exceeded, the event proved controversial. None of the ministers would accept responsibility. Eventually one of the civil servants was blamed in an investigation report, and disciplined, but a High Court judge later threw out all the adverse findings against him. (Full disclosure, I was that civil servant).

Pretty much a mixed bag during the first 18 months then: three ministers had gone under public pressure, but only one to take responsibility for a perceived political failure.

The 2011-12 episode over the proposed curriculum for national education, and the very conservative political reform package of 2014 both sparked controversy and public opposition that defeated them, but the idea of ministers quitting to take political responsibility for failure by now seemed dead.

And so to the extradition legislation of the past few months. By any measure this has been the biggest political failing (or series of failings) for decades. Protesters have indeed called for the resignation of those involved, but it now seems to be an article of faith that the correct response to failure is to find someone else to take the blame.

It could all have been so different. Imagine if after the near two million person march of 16 June the Secretary for Security had stood up and said “I got this completely wrong, I’m very sorry, and I hereby resign.” And his successor then stood up and said the draft bill was withdrawn.

And the Secretary for Justice had stood up and said “I have made a complete mess of this important piece of legislation, I’m very sorry and I hereby resign.” And her successor then stood up and said it was clear that only a full-scale commission of Inquiry headed by a judge of the High Court would satisfy public opinion, and one was hereby appointed.

By then the “riot” classification of the 12 June blockade of Legco had already been dropped. This plus resignation of two ministers should have satisfied the blood lust of the demonstrators, and address four of the demands. That would leave only the amnesty item, which could by then be resisted more credibly because the government would have regained the moral high ground. No use crying over spilt milk I suppose. But it is absolutely clear that the concept of ministerial accountability is, to coin a phrase “dead and laid out ready for burial”. Perhaps it too should now be “withdrawn”.