Public consultation mechanism revamp won't be enough

July 11, 2019 15:01
Following the extradition bill disaster, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam has vowed to enhance public consultations before undertaking any major policy initiatives. Photo: Bloomberg

After avoiding the spotlight for a week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor appeared before the media on Tuesday before heading into an Executive Council meeting.

During the interaction, Lam took the opportunity to send a message to the public, calling on them to set aside their differences and help restore calm to society.

She vowed that from now on, her administration will listen more to public views when embarking on policy initiatives.

The chief executive conceded that the existing consultative machinery, under which there are now dozens of advisory committees in operation, needs to undergo drastic reform, because, as she put it, it can no longer keep pace with the needs of our time.

Yet she didn’t go into detail as to how she is going to revamp the system so that the process of policy-making can reflect public opinion.

At present, there are a large number of consultative advisory committees under the various bureaus that are charged with advising the government on different issues.

While some advisory committees have several dozen members, some only have a few, with the vast majority of the members directly appointed by the government.

This consultative machinery has been in place since the British colonial era.

But now, in the wake of the extradition bill fiasco, the government is suddenly waking up to the fact that the long-standing system has become outdated, and that it requires a complete overhaul.

The administration hopes to build an equal, interactive and open platform for dialogue. This concept might sound pretty impressive, but it remains to be seen whether the actual arrangement can deliver the intended efficacy.

A government figure has revealed that the administration would first require all bureaus to examine the consultative advisory committees under them, and then put forward proposals on how to reform them.

Since the consultative advisory committees are often different from one another by nature, they will have to be examined one by one in order to find out which ones are worth reforming so that public voices from below can be heard, the person said.

According to the government source, there isn’t any conclusion yet within the administration as to how exactly the reviews of consultative advisory committees should be carried out, nor is there a deadline for the completion of the initiative.

Apart from reforming the current consultative machinery, Lam also stated in no uncertain terms on Tuesday that she has invited all her principal officials to “revisit and re-examine some of the controversial policy initiatives under their respective jurisdiction, and consider whether we should redo or enhance the consultation and discussions with the people."

Such efforts should be made "so that at the end of the day we could have an initiative which has more broad-based support, and in doing so I hope we could restore some of the trust in the government amongst our people,” Lam said.

Now, what are the “controversial policy initiatives” that she could be referring to?

According to another government source, there isn’t any list of “controversial policy initiatives” at this point, and that the chief executive will, instead, leave it to the various bureaus to study and decide which policy measures should be deemed controversial.

It is expected that the highly contentious Lantau Tomorrow Vision project, as well as the cancellation of the offsetting mechanism of the Mandatory Provident Fund and the introduction of vacant property tax for first-hand units are likely to be on top of that re-examination list.

All of these policy initiatives were deemed controversial even before the anti-extradition bill movement.

But one thing we need to bear in mind is this: the importance of the public consultation mechanism has declined over the years ever the city adopted representative government.

Given this, there will be a huge question mark hanging over whether Lam can truly restore public confidence in her administration just by tweaking the consultative advisory committees, rather than addressing the fundamental built-in flaw in the political system -- lack of genuine universal suffrage.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 10

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.