Let's all agree - to do nothing

It is a fact of political life in free societies that governments can govern only with the consent, whether implied or explicit, of the governed.

In democracies, that consent is regularly renewed - or withheld - at the ballot box. If renewed, the party in power soldiers on. If withheld, the opposition takes over.

It is natural, then, for governments in such communities to go ahead with policies which they think will be popular and to seek as much support and understanding as possible for proposals that they think will be less welcome, or at least not accepted by everyone.

This last point is an important one. Governments are there after all to govern, not sit around waiting for a consensus to emerge. In an emergency, delay might be fatal. Even in less dramatic circumstances, not everyone is going to agree with every policy. The Government has to weigh up different views, opposing interests, and then decide what it thinks is in the best overall interests of the community. Its many judgments during its term of office will in turn be judged by voters at the next election.

Hong Kong is a free society, but not (yet) a democracy. This is a key factor in reducing the authority of the Administration and lessening its ability to govern. Because there is no popular mandate from the community, the tendency is to move cautiously on every subject and to try to seek consensus on everything, even where common sense indicates that the opposing interests cannot possibly be reconciled.

We have seen two examples in recent weeks of where this weakness leads.

The first concerns the legislation to make drivers switch off idling engines. Finally it has been passed, but only after so many exemptions were granted that the final result is virtually useless. So the overwhelming majority of us who are being slowly killed by the foul air polluted by vehicular emissions have been obliged to compromise with a small minority insisting on the right to enjoy air conditioning at all times and in all circumstances. How much more robust our environmental officials could have been if armed with a democratic mandate.

The second example concerns the Hong Kong marathon and the various proposals to make a great event even better.

This annual race has grown into something truly spectacular. Every year, tens of thousands of people of all ages and from all walks of life join together in a very healthy activity and have fun in a way that causes no harm and brings only benefits. And not just on the day itself: people train for months beforehand to prepare for the big day, with consequential substantial gains in their overall state of health.

Visitors from overseas fly in to participate. The media coverage projects exactly the image we want the rest of the world to have of our city as a modern, lively, cosmopolitan place.

In order to improve the marathon still further and open it up to even more people, we need to extend the hours of road closure to a full day so that everyone can set for themselves the realistic target of - at least once in their life - going the full distance. And we need to consider alternative routes so as to bring the event closer to the city centre. If London and New York can do it, why on earth can't we?

But here is where the desperate search for consensus at all costs brings us up against a brick wall. Because although even non participants can see that the race is a good thing, there is a minority of road users who object even to the present system of road closures.

Yes, it does cause some inconvenience, and extending the hours would make the situation worse. But where does the balance of advantage lay for the community as a whole?

The Government has done its usual duck dive and declined to take a position. At least two Ministers are on record as saying it is up to the organizers - or the runners themselves - to bring the community to a consensus. This is gibberish. How can those who want the roads closed for longer reach a consensus with those who don't think the roads should be closed at all?

In a democratic society, a Minister would now come forward and show some leadership. Sadly, in Hong Kong's current political environment, such a quality is fast becoming conspicuous by its absence.