Date
22 September 2017
Most of the items discussed by CY Leung had already been trailed or announced so the annual address was little more than an exercise in consolidation. Photo: HKEJ
Most of the items discussed by CY Leung had already been trailed or announced so the annual address was little more than an exercise in consolidation. Photo: HKEJ

Time to end the policy address farce

What exactly is the point of the policy address? There is a point to having an annual policy statement and there is most definitely a reason for it to be presented for discussion in Legco but as for the address itself, well, that’s pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

Anyone who doubts this assertion can rapidly go from here to the government website (http://www.policyaddress.gov.hk/2017/eng/index.html) and view the details in full, but a strong dose of caffeine to prevent drowsiness is highly recommended.

Leung Chun-ying is well known for having the charisma of a blank wall but his monotone delivery and total lack of expression while ploughing through this year’s address almost, but not quite, brought this occasion to new lows. I say not quite because he has delivered three other policy addresses.

The charade of the policy address is one of the many colonial leftovers so lovingly preserved in aspic by Hong Kong’s new rulers who eagerly retain as many bad legacies of the former regime as possible.

The policy address, something that Britain used in all its colonies, is derived from the annual Queen’s Speech delivered in the House of Lords, setting out the government’s program.

This, in some ways, is even more bizarre than the colonial policy addresses because Britain’s head of state is not part of the government and has zero input into the speech that comes out of the monarch’s mouth. However it takes its place in the rich pageantry of parliamentary life in Westminster.

Despite all this, the speech subsequently becomes a matter of close scrutiny in the House of Commons and the prime minister of the day goes to considerable lengths to sell it.

Meanwhile, in colonial Hong Kong, a London-appointed governor would lumber over to Legco clutching a speech cobbled together by many fellow bureaucrats. He did not expect his policy to be challenged but it was a thought to be a good idea for legislators to know his plans for the coming year so that they could get behind them.

Although the policy address was supposed to be a speech, it sounded like a dry government document and governors always stuck strictly to the script even though it was often clear that as they had no hand in drafting parts of the address, thus they had little familiarity with some of what they were saying.

My-oh-my, how things have changed, or to put it another way, my-oh-my, how things have remained pretty much the same except that the governor is now called the chief executive. Legco is more rambunctious and the man giving the speech claims to be a politician because he was chosen by way of a farcical election. At least the Brits never pretended that their top man was anything other than a London-appointee.

And, as we saw on Jan. 18, there was little or no attempt to set out any kind of ruling vision nor indeed to explain the rationale for many of the policies. Instead, they were presented as something akin to a long shopping list. Most of the items had already been trailed or announced so the annual address was little more than an exercise in consolidation.

Other governmental systems also have annual addresses of this kind, notably the US State of the Nation address, delivered by the president. The difference being that in democratic systems, the person at the top understands that their program will be challenged and carefully scrutinized.

This is why a great deal of attention is paid to the manner of the delivery and when a good speech works, the oratory can be soaring.

An annual exercise in policymaking is clearly useful because it helps to identify priorities and secure the resources needed to fulfill these priorities. The upshot is, or should be, a detailed plan of action.

The word detailed matters because vague assertions are pretty valueless and the benefit of putting everything in one place makes it easier to consider the order of priorities; I believe this is called joined-up thinking.

However, what is the point of getting the chief executive to stand and read it all out, especially as Hong Kong has never had a chief executive with anything resembling strong communication skills.

Surely, it would be far better and far more useful to have the CE highlight the thinking and strategy behind the government’s program and then be subject not just to one but more than one session with legislators who are duty bound to scrutinize this document and question it.

As matters, stand time is wasted while the chief executive drones on for a couple of hours and leaves the chamber without taking questions. The following day, he turns up for a Q&A session that generally produces little illumination, not least because the CE knows there will be no forensic examination, merely a single pro-forma attempt by each legislator to get a question answered.

There is a better way of doing this but in the absence of a genuinely elected chief executive and a fully elected legislature, chances of reform are pretty small.

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AC/RA

Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author

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