21 October 2016
Public opinion in a government consultation has been opposed to plans for further development of Lantau Island. Will the government pay attention or go along with developers' wishes anyway? Photo: CNSA, internet
Public opinion in a government consultation has been opposed to plans for further development of Lantau Island. Will the government pay attention or go along with developers' wishes anyway? Photo: CNSA, internet

Do we need to be consulted over bothersome cold calls?

Do you know a single person in Hong Kong who actually likes being bothered by cold calls from machines or real people selling whatever it is that they are selling?

No, I thought not. Indeed, everyone I know is quite convinced that these incessant nuisance calls need to be banned.

It seems pretty simple, but apparently not simple enough for the bureaucrats who are planning to launch a public consultation exercise to gather views on this matter.

The only explanation I can think of for this is that the government really likes consultation exercises.

So far this year, the government has launched 14 of these so called public consultations. Last year, 31 were launched.

This outburst of consultation sounds pretty good, but is the public really being consulted in a way that ensures its views are taken into account, or are these exercises primarily propaganda campaigns for something the government wants to do, or maybe they are a clever way of avoiding doing anything?

A good example of the latter is the new consultation exercise on establishing a statutory minimum wage.

This follows a previous consultation on this same matter and three years of intensive surveying of public views by a committee established for the very purpose of looking into this matter.

The net result has been to yield yet another consultation exercise and nothing else.

No wonder the union representatives are furious and say they will have nothing to do with this farce, but that’s not going to stop the government going ahead, because prevarication is what it does best.

However sometimes these consultations throw up results that are contrary to government intentions.

This is the kind of thing that happens with consultations regarding area development, such as the Lantau development consultation, which is now drawing to an end.

It appears that the overwhelming force of public opinion is opposed to plans for more intensive development of the island — in other words, dishing out more land for property development.

However property developers are powerful people, and their voice carries far more weight than that of ordinary citizens.

So, it is possible to confidently predict how the government will handle this consultation.

After the usual delay in responding to this exercise, the Bureaucrat of the Day will point out that views are divided (which, of course, they are), and he or she will go on to say that a careful balance needs to be achieved between the desire for conservation and the demands of a land-starved, developing society.

In the interests of balance, therefore, Lantau will become far more developed, but careful attention (code words for doing nothing) will be paid to ensure conservation.

In other words, regardless of public opinion, the developers will get their way.

However, as a sop to public opinion, some of their concrete pouring will be slightly curtailed, but not greatly.

This is generally how it goes when the government allegedly consults the public over development issues, but sometimes it is more blatant in using consultation exercises as nothing more than a propaganda tool.

The alleged consultation over the method of electing the chief executive, which gave way to the ill-fated bill only allowing pre-screened candidates to stand for election, produced exactly the outcome the government desired.

Even while the consultation was underway, ministers were sent buzzing around the city informing the public that a free and open election was a non-starter but they could choose anything other than that.

When large numbers of people ignored them and called for genuine universal suffrage allowing both the choice of candidate and votes for candidates, their views were summarily dismissed as being unrealistic.

The purpose of the consultation, therefore, was to frame the debate, not listen to the people.

One reason Hong Kong has so many of these consultation exercises is because there is no elected government and the old colonial regime decided it would be a good idea to at least provide the illusion of public participation in decision making, as long as it retained the power to ensure that public participation never became an exercise in self-determination.

This model of fake consultation was warmly embraced by the post-colonial government, because it, too, was concerned about appearances and realized the potential for having endless consultation exercises that could be dressed up as a form of public participation while being shorn of any real meaning.

That’s why I’m suggesting that the government should consider launching a public consultation exercise on consultations, followed by the establishment of a Public Consultation Review Commission, which I am more than happy to chair in association with the usual rabble of government trustees.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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