26 March, 2013


In coming weeks, the energy of the Hong Kong government will be absorbed not in the administration of the City but in answering thousands of questions raised by the legislature.

The City’s legislature will convene a special session of its finance committee, or to be precise, a consecutive session taking up the entire second week of April.  The purpose is to examine the estimates of public expenditure proposed by the Financial Secretary in his latest budget.  During this period, top officials of the entire government will respond in roll to legislative queries.

In order to provide legislators with necessary information before this special session, written questions will be put forth to the government in advance.  Last year, a total of 3,491 questions were thus answered.  Given the increased number of legislators and exhibited opposition to the budget this year, the number must well shoot up to four or five thousands.

How to make a sense of this number?  Well, not much if you consider that the UK Parliament raised over 50,000 questions a year.  But that’s for a whole country in an entire year. 

The truly interesting thing is what such number reveals.  The City’s mini-constitution provides that the legislature is to “examine and approve budgets” and “to approve taxation and public expenditure”.  Budgetary oversight is also one of the oldest roles of legislatures the world over.  Charles I of England went to war with Parliament because the latter consistently frustrated his ambition to raise revenue to field his army.  The US Constitution also expressly entrusts taxing power to the Congress. 

In modern times, amendment and veto power serves the primary means through which legislature exercises such scrutiny and oversight.  If a country is analogous to a household, then the legislature is the housewife holding the purse.  But the reality in Hong Kong is that the mini-constitution is so designed to incapacitate its powers that legislators have no de facto recourse to amending or vetoing a government budget.  Any amendment initiated by legislators to government financial proposals requires the respective consents of those legislators directly elected and those representing factional industry interests.  

Questioning thus becomes the only way in which legislators may show their constituencies that they are doing their jobs, or more often merely to vent their anger and frustration over the government.

And indeed such anger and frustration are on the rise.  Ten years ago, the legislature only raised about 1,500 questions in budgetary session.  Certainly, the City’s fiscal conditions have not grown three times more complex over a decade.  To the contrary, its fiscal strength has improved.

The exponential explosion of budgetary questioning reflects wider political frustration, which can find no expression except in such debilitating manner, meagerly allowed for under current constitutional design.  Many of these questions are mundane, repetitive and inquisitive on statistics rather than the spirit of policies, let alone alternative political platforms.

The quantity maybe daunting, but the quality is neither illustrative of opposition’s governing capability nor really detrimental to the ruling government, except for keeping the bureaucrats busy.  To answer any question, it takes considerable time for officials at numerous layers to dig into archives and go through successive rounds of submission and internal clearance.  Accurate and watertight as they may be, the answers are normally as banal and boring as the questions, if not more.

The whole process serves little purpose to raise the standard of political debate or governance, but immense administrative efforts are spent on it.  A more pressing question is perhaps, “how much public expenditure has been incurred in answering the questions?”  The UK Parliament estimates that the average cost of a written question, in terms of the time and effort spent, was about 150 pounds.  But I suspect it is much higher in Hong Kong.

The City’s business sector prides itself on Hong Kong’s efficiency.  The current legislative design is a colonial legacy and believed by them to enhance the City’s efficiency under an executive-led government.  But times have changed.  They do not realize that by sticking to the current archaic design, they have inadvertently produced a government that can be neither democratic nor efficient.

(EJ Insight, 25 March 2013)