The ministerial reshuffle announced in late April by chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor was received with a mixture of indifference and cynicism. After all, most people thought Lam herself should have been the first to go rather than the five who actually lost their jobs (one of whom was moved sideways to an equivalent position). Yet the real significance of the exercise may have been missed: it effectively marked the death of the system of ministerial accountability.
The system was introduced in 2002 to install a political level on top of the civil service. These politicians would owe their positions entirely to the chief executive and would make all major policy decisions which the civil service would then implement. To reflect their status, and the fact that they are responsible for everything that happens in their policy areas, the ministers are very well paid. Their monthly salaries now exceed $300,000 – that’s over $10,000 per day, the one-off sum we are all getting to revive the economy.
Among the other ministers, there were two – secretary for justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah and secretary for security John Lee Ka-chiu – whose performance during the extradition saga clearly merited dismissal, yet they survived the cull. Both had failed to stand up to their boss’ unwise demand to draft and force through controversial extradition legislation without sufficient consultation and by bypassing standard legislative scrutiny. Lee had in addition simply lost control of the police force.
Very little was expected from the report by the Independent Police Complaints Council into police handling of the 2019 protests, and the doubters for the most part had their worst fears confirmed. Yet the section on the Yuen Long incident, by itself, raised fundamental questions about the calibre of force leadership and the performance of large numbers of individual police officers. But nobody was held to account.
Casting around the ranks of other ministers who survived, there are some who look the part while the remainder alas are of more modest ability. Then there is the secretary for transport and housing Frank Chan Fan, who stands out for lack of achievement. On the housing side of the bureau’s portfolio, the situation has never been worse. Hong Kong’s private housing market remains the most expensive in the world despite the effects of COVID 19 on economic activity. Three years after Chan took up his post, the waiting time for public housing has reached an all-time high of five and a half years, and is expected to soon top six years. Single elderly must now wait almost three years, and many of course will die while still in the queue. It would seem to the naked eye that every performance target on housing has been missed.
Things are no better on the transport side. Every rail project in recent years has been delivered late and over budget. Partly this was due to the failure by the government to stipulate a proper set of priorities and instead require the mass transit railway corporation to implement five major projects (West Island, South Island, Shatin-Central, Whampoa, Cross-border high speed rail link) in parallel. Inevitably, design and supervisory resources were spread too thinly. The minister failed to set the priorities, and also sits on the board of the MTRC which failed to resist a clearly over-ambitious programme.
One aspect of these projects – improvements to Hung Hom station as part of the Shatin-Central line – was so badly handled that it became the subject of a commission of inquiry headed by a retired judge. The report was submitted to the chief executive in March and went to the Executive Council in May. Blame for the shoddy work was laid firmly at the door of the MTRC and its main contractor Leighton. The railway division of the highways department responsible for monitoring the safety of mass transit projects was also deficient in its work.
As a result of the shoddy work, the project will be delayed by at least two years and the cost overruns are in the billions of dollars.
Chan has apologized, expressed disappointment at the performance of others, but clings on. Yet he is directly responsible both for the MTRC and the Highways Department which failed to monitor it. Even a pro-government legislator – Abraham Shek – has called for the minister to step down.
I cannot allow the subject of transport to close without raising the issue of the taxi service and Hong Kong’s response to Uber. We all know there are good taxi drivers but there are also some shockers. How many times do we enter a cab which smells of tobacco, or the driver, or both? With dirty tissues in the door handles or pushed down the back of seats. Six or more mobile phones lined up on the dashboard to try to catch the next fare, any of which may be answered while driving. A radio blaring away on the driver’s preferred channel. A jerky driving style interspersed with dangerous lane cutting. Refusal to cross the harbour. We have all experienced one or more of these phenomena from time to time. Complaints against taxis pile up without result. By contrast, Uber – which I recently started using – provides a totally different experience, and on the odd occasion when the standard falls short there is an effective feedback mechanism. The minister’s response? Propose a premium taxi scheme at higher fare levels, an idea struggling to gain support even from pro government legislators, and arrest the Uber drivers. You couldn’t make it up.
So there we have it: 18 years after introduction of the ministerial accountability system we have a reshuffle – and the three worst performing ministers survive. The idea is dead.