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Government is faking ‘public support' by manipulating the district councils

Source: South China Morning Post. Click the cartoon to visit SCMP.COM.

Not only are the Government plans for the Central Harbourfront a disgrace for Hong Kong's planning profession, the Government is now faking ‘support' by abusing its control over the District Councils.

The following is based on investigative reports by Olga Wong and Joyce Ng published in the South China Morning Post on 4 August 2008.

Words of wisdom

The following are the exact same phrases repeated in the motions moved by district councils (in support of the Government's plans for the Central Harbourfront):

  • "create a vibrant and accessible new waterfront" (10)
  • "development of the Central commercial centre should be in step with the lowering of development intensity" (11)
  • "promotion of greening" (13)
  • "an ample provision of open space and leisure facilities to the public" (12)
  • "ultimately giving the harbour back to the community" (8)
  • "reassemble the Queen's Pier at the harbourfront to revive its function for public use" (11)

() is the number of motions which contain the same phrase.

Government accused of swaying district councils on consultation

The government has been accused of having orchestrated the views of district councils on the future of Queen's Pier, after it emerged that a series of motions that backed shifting the pier to the new Central waterfront had very similar wording.

Government drafted the motions

Councillors also revealed that the government had been closely involved in drafting the motion and had urged them to move it.

A review of council minutes found phrases repeated in 13 of the 16 motions. It also found that 13 motions had been initiated by appointed councillors and members of the pro-government camp, with at least five of them being motions from the floor.

The public consultation on the new Central waterfront closed on Thursday. The government sought the views of all 18 district councils, saying the waterfront belonged to the whole community. Only Wong Tai Sin and Sham Shui Po councils did not move a motion on the issue.

The 13 similar motions said: "The council supports the creation of a vibrant and accessible new waterfront in Central. To support the new Central Harbourfront Project, the development of the Central commercial centre should be in step with the lowering of development intensity, the promotion of greening, and ample provision of open space and leisure facilities to the public, ultimately giving the harbour back to the community, and with the hope that the government will reassemble the Queen's Pier at the Central harbourfront."

Another three motions passed in the Eastern, Southern and Kwai Tsing councils had different wording with the same meaning.

District councils rubber stamp

Critics questioned the fairness of the consultation and criticised the councils for acting as a rubber stamp.

Wong Tai Sin District Council vice-chairman Wong Kam-chi said the Home Affairs Department had advised some councillors to focus the council's discussion by moving a motion. They were also advised on the motion's "key points", for example that the new design should not delay infrastructure.

Council chairman Li Tak-hong said he received a message from the district officer that other councils had moved a motion. "I was asked to consider taking the same action. But that did not mean I had to do so."

It was the first time his council had been asked to move a motion on an issue outside its geographic area.

Wan Chai councillor Kenny Lee Kwun-yee said her motion was initiated by the government, and the council's secretariat had provided her with a "draft" of the motion.

The council's discussion was not thorough, but members generally agreed with the motion, she added.

Then starts lying about it

But Ms Lee "corrected" her comment a few minutes later in another call, saying the secretariat was asked to draft the motion according to the chairman's views.

Tuen Mun councillor Lam Chung-hoi said he received a fax containing the motion from the district officer, who urged him to support it.

Two Yau Tsim Mong and Yuen Long councillors said they had looked at the motion moved by other councils before moving their own.

A Home Affairs Department spokeswoman said it was the prerogative of district council members to decide on the wording of a motion, but declined to comment on whether the department had provided a draft.

A Development Bureau spokeswoman said the bureau had liaised with district officers in preparation for council meetings, but did not comment on whether it had been involved in dafting the motion.

District councils lashed over pier vote

District councils' support for the government's view on relocating Queen's Pier would not be a problem - if councillors had gone through the decision-making process better, a political analyst said.

Revelations of the government's apparent influence over the councils' position on the pier had reinforced the councils' image as a rubber stamp, said Li Pang-kwong from Lingnan University.

Dr Li was commenting on accusations that the government had orchestrated the views of district councils on the future of Queen's Pier after it emerged that the wording of motions in support of moving it to the new Central waterfront matched closely, and that the government had been closely involved in drafting the wording and had lobbied the councils to pass this.

Dr Li was not surprised by the government's lobbying on the pier issue. But he said the councils should at least show their independence by rewriting the motion.

"The councils are working too closely with the government," he said. "Their blind support has made things worse."

He said the issue was another example of the problematic framework of district councils, which are dominated by appointed members and government-friendly camps and managed under the Home Affairs Department.

It mirrored the government's consulting of every council on the universal suffrage issue last year. Over two-thirds of the 18 district councils passed a supporting motion.

Acting on orders from above

Sources from professional institutions also said senior government officials had been persuading professionals, including architects, to support the relocation.

"The officials must be acting on orders from above," a source said.

Democratic Party chairman and Tuen Mun district councillor Albert Ho Chun-yan said he had heard that a district officer drafted the motion for councillors to propose. "The government has been tampering with the newly elected district councils strategically in order to create public opinion," he said.

"District officers have been reduced to propagandists/propaganda tools," he said.

Mr Ho had moved a counter-motion suggesting the government place Queen's Pier and the Star Ferry clock tower at their original positions, but it was voted down.

Vincent Ng Wing-shun, convenor of the Hong Kong Urban Design Alliance, said the government had been leading the public towards its own view. "I doubted the openness of the consultation exercise. The government is engineering the results of the consultation," he said.

Mr Ng said the pros and cons of relocating the pier were not fairly presented in the consultation document and public forums. The government did not explain how the relocation would undermine the pier's historic significance, and the document did not mention that two public piers would loose a berth if Queen's Pier was reassembled at the waterfront.

"The public is overwhelmed with the congestion problems without seeing the full picture," he said.

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