RTHK "Letter to Hong Kong"

by Martin Lee

Broadcasted on 04 August 2002 on Radio 3, Radio Television Hong Kong

When Mr. C. H. Tung presented his Accountability System for Principal Official to the Legislative Council a few months ago, the Democratic Party and I opposed it - not because we did not want our ministers to be accountable, but because we thought the system did not go far enough. Indeed, the system merely made the ministers who were to be appointed by Beijing on the sole recommendations of Mr. Tung accountable to him only, and Mr. Tung himself was only accountable to Beijing.

Thus, Mr. Tung's very clear intention was not to make himself or any of his ministers accountable to the Legislative Council or to the people of Hong Kong. In other words, there is no question of any of his ministers having to resign unless he, Mr. Tung, asks him/her to do so.

It must therefore have taken Mr. Tung by surprise that on Wednesday, 31st July 2002, even before two of his newly appointed ministers officially reported for duty, the Financial Secretary, Mr. Antony Leung, one of Mr. Tung's most trusted and senior ministers, found it necessary to say that he would resign over the Penny-stock affair if the two-member panel set up by him were to find "that I have made any mistakes in the incident and if such mistakes lead the public and the Chief Executive to consider that I should step down."

Of course Mr. Antony Leung chose his words very carefully because he did not wish to resign, but the conditions he himself framed were in accordance with what he initially understood the system of accountability to be, namely, he did not have to go unless Mr. Tung wanted him to. But the public sees it differently - and for a very good reason.

For back in May, when Mr. Tung and his senior officials were rushing the accountability system through the Legislative Council in time for the new ministers to take office on the same day as Mr. Tung was to start his second term of office as the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region on 1 July 2002, the government found it necessary to win the support of the public, and through the public, some legislators who were still reluctant to support the system because many important details had yet to be thrashed out.

A public opinion poll was thus conducted on behalf of the government and the key question was: "Do you support or not support the HKSAR Government's proposal to introduce the Accountability System for Principal Officials to enhance its accountability to the public?" The result was: 65.4% supported it while 14.5% did not support it.

It is therefore clear that the public gave its overwhelming support to the Accountability System on the basis that it would indeed enhance the Government's accountability to the public. In the other words, they took the government's promise on trust, and now they hold the government to it.

What the public now expects from our principal officials or ministers is that they should hold themselves accountable in the same way as ministers do in parliamentary democracies, like the United Kingdom, Canada or the U.S.A.

First, there is no need to establish personal culpability on the part of a minister, so long as the particular matter falls within his area of responsibility. For more often than not, it is a case of vicarious responsibility.

Second, the fault need not be related to a government policy, for it often lies in the faulty implementation of a policy which may be a perfectly good one.

Third, in obvious cases which have attracted great publicity and wide public condemnation, the public does not wait for the government to set up a committee of enquiry, but expects the responsible minister to resign forthwith.

In the context of this case, therefore the minister concerned does not have to know the actual details of the consultation document which was released to the public and which in turn led to the crash of the penny stocks. Second, the minister concerned does not have to be proved to have been morally blame-worthy for that is no need for moral turpitude to be established.

In the actual case however during the three-and-a-half-hour meeting of the Legislative Council Panel on Financial Affairs on 31st of July, it was established that the minister concerned, Mr. Ma, actually knew about the summary of the proposal which led to the crash because a memorandum had been sent to his office although, according to him, it was somehow buried among a mountain of other documents kept in his office.

The most important admission from Mr. Ma was that if he had known of the very serious consequences of the release of such a consultation document, he would have stopped it, which means quite clearly that he could have prevented the crash if he had been sensitive enough to forewarn himself of the dire consequences.

I am not calling for the resignation of anybody at this stage because I agree that we should know more about the actual incident. The Financial Secretary Mr. Antony Leung tried to pre-empt any sort of investigation by the Panel of Legislative Council when he informed the Chairman just before the meeting on 31st that he had already appointed a two-member panel to investigate into the matter and report to him.

The Panel however thought that because the matter might possibly implicate the Financial Secretary himself, it would have been better for the Chief Executive to appoint a commission of inquiry formally under the Commission of Inquiry Ordinance so that the commissioner would be equipped with the powers of a judge in calling for witnesses to attend the hearing and calling for the production of documents in order to get to the very bottom of the matter. Unfortunately, Mr. Tung declined to accept the very reasonable suggestion from the Panel and accepted the decision of Mr. Antony Leung in leaving the matter to the two-member panel appointed by him.

I am afraid the public will not be satisfied with half the truth. The public wants the entire truth. And as for accountability the public demands nothing less than our minister saying: "The buck stops right here with me."

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