[SCMP Column] Stop consulting, just do it!

January 13, 2015

In the week before Christmas, with little better to do, I set myself a mind-numbing challenge – one that continued on Wednesday. I ploughed through all of the policy addresses from 1998, and counted the number of times Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and Leung Chun-ying used four words: democracy, consensus, inequality and youth.

Inevitably, all three of our chief executives have paid lip service to “democracy” – Tsang in particular, who on average used the word nine times in each policy address. Tung mainly ignored the word over his eight policy addresses – but then made up for it on steroids in 2004 with 27 references as he focused on “enlightened and people-based governance”, strengthening advisory bodies, talking of cooperating with Legco, cooperating with districts, and the importance of middle-class women. It is intriguing to re-read so many commitments to do things that a decade later have come to naught.

Most frustrating to me has been the steady obsession with “consensus”. The word has been continuously on the lips of every one of our leaders – Tsang took it to a crescendo in his first two policy addresses in 2006 and 2007 with more than 10 references in each address – and their failure to achieve consensus has again and again been used as an excuse for inertia following consultation after consultation.

The obsession frustrates me because I see no role for consensus in politics: modern complex societies are riddled with large and perfectly reasonable differences of opinion, and the very essence of democracy is to broker those differences. Indeed, the concept of democracy is fundamentally founded on a recognition that there can never be consensus – and that to be held hostage to it can only cripple decision-making and lead to political inertia.

The democratic process, underpinned in most democracies by party politics, is about leaders building coalitions of support around compromises bundled together in manifestos. If your coalition of support manages to win political office on the basis of your manifesto, then that vote of support delivers to your coalition the mandate it needs to push through policies even though there are minorities who, often for good and sensible reasons, disagree.

In obsessing about “consensus”, our leaders have demonstrated their fundamental failure to understand what democracy is about, their failure to acknowledge that differences of opinion are reasonable, natural and normal. They have also hobbled all effective policymaking power.

In light of the sobering lessons of the recent months’ Occupy Central activity, our leaders’ interest in inequality and youth is telling. In nine years in office, Tung mentioned the word “inequality” just twice in his policy address. Tsang paid little more attention to the problem – except in 2011 when he used the word nine times as he wrung his hands about improving people’s well-being, reflected on the unaffordability of housing, and introduced his “My House Purchase” scheme.

In his three policy addresses, amounting to a total of more than 50,000 words, Leung has never used the word. If any lessons have been learned from the alienated youngsters at the heart of the Occupy demonstrations – and from the embarrassing influence-buying revelations of the Rafael Hui Si-yan corruption trial – then surely this must change, and fast.

Tung by and large ignored the issue of youth – except in his 1998 policy address when he used the word 18 times as he talked about raising education spending, committed the government to whole-day schooling for all, funded the introduction of information technology in schools, and established the Employee Retraining Board.

Tsang too ignored youth-related issues – until his last two years in office. And Leung has poured huge attention on the challenges faced by our young – with 17 references to “youth” in 2013, a massive 25 last year, and 31 on Wednesday. So far, a lot of good it seems to have done him!

Of course, this word search reflects nothing more than the lip service our leaders have given to these issues. As we saw with Tung’s focus on democracy in 2004, and Tsang’s sudden surge of interest in inequality in 2011, the rhetoric has delivered very little substance.

Perhaps the main lessons of Occupy are that our leaders have to provide substance, not lip-service; abandon “consensus” as an alibi for inertia; and stop the perennial cycle of consultations. As Nike might say, the time has come to “just do it”.

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