A Pefect Storm

The freshly launched vessel carrying C Y Leung’s policy agenda for the next five years is in danger of being sunk by a perfect storm, almost before it has had the chance to get out of the harbour.

The first violent weather phenomenon is the tidal wave of disappointment which tends to sweep over any administration nearing its end, as that of outgoing Chief Executive Donald Tsang now is.

There are the inevitable policy disappointments: a widening wealth gap; absurdly high property prices; failure to achieve any meaningful progress in cleaning up the environment; competition legislation that has been compromised into irrelevance; an appalling attempt to scrap by-elections altogether (now thankfully replaced by a milder more proportionate alternative).

To these must be added the torrent of revelations about abuse of power bordering on corruption. A Chief Executive cavorting like a Russian oligarch with dubious characters; a former Chief Secretary led away under escort after arrest by the ICAC; another with a huge illegal basement structure under his own home constructed while he held high office.

A breathtaking list of improprieties and an overpowering stench of sleaze. No wonder that even a long time Hong Kong loyalist like Bernard Chan confessed to finding it difficult to continue to boast about our "clean government" – previously taken as a given, and one of Hong Kong’s core strengths.

The second maelstrom derives from the almost complete collapse of the accountability system introduced with such fanfare in 2002. In the past decade only one minister has resigned to take responsibility for a perceived policy failure on his watch. That was Health Secretary E K Yeoh following critical reports about the government’s handling of the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Is that the only instance anyone can think of during this 10 years which was less than a complete success? Lehman Brothers minibonds, anyone? Senior civil servants given approval to work after retirement for companies with which they had close official dealings?

We can all think of our own favourites.

Five years ago, in the final moments of the last CE term, we saw the sudden introduction of deputy and political assistant posts without any proper review of the system up to that point, and without proper scrutiny of the proposed salaries which turned out to be excessive. Such actions inevitably leave a legacy of mistrust and suspicion.

It is against this backdrop that our Chief Executive-elect brought forward proposals to revamp the governing structure. I have already said in these columns that I thought the action was premature.

Not because the proposals themselves are without merit, but because other things needed to be done first so that the latest proposals could be seen in their proper context and judged on their own merits, rather than dragged down by association. (Unhelpfully, in the middle of the current exercise, the outgoing regime announced a proposed ministerial pay rise. Sensibly, this idea was abandoned almost immediately.)

Far better to have reviewed the system thoroughly at the outset, including a comprehensive salary review of all levels, then a cabinet re-jigging to match declared policy priorities.

We can’t get the genie back in the bottle, of course, and the revamp proposals will now have to complete the scrutiny process. If they squeak through, Mr Leung can count himself lucky, and breathe a sigh of relief. If they don’t, he will have to swallow his disappointment and make the best of it. It will be a bit of a black eye but not necessarily a mortal blow provided the ruling team learn the right lesson.

Those around Mr Leung are encouraging him to come out of the blocks like Liu Xiang. Now Mr Liu is a fine athlete and one all Chinese people can be very proud of. But he only runs 110 metres clearing a mere 10 hurdles in the process, and it’s all over in seconds.

A CE term is more like a steeplechase, and a marathon one at that. There will be scores of barriers to clear over the coming years.

By all means start as soon as you hear the pistol, Mr Leung. But forget about sprinting after that. Find one of those wiry Kenyan coaches and prepare for the long haul.