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Hong Kong government revamp to cost taxpayers extra HK$95 million a year, but incoming leader vows better results

·7-min read

Hong Kong’s massive government restructuring plan for Chief Executive-elect John Lee Ka-chiu’s incoming administration will cost taxpayers an extra HK$95 million (US$12.1 million) a year, three times the amount estimated by his predecessor, which makes it the most expensive revamp in 25 years.

Under the finalised plan approved by incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s de facto cabinet on Tuesday morning, a new role of deputy secretary for justice will be created, along with that of deputy financial secretary and deputy chief secretary for administration, to help oversee 15 bureaus planned under the next administration.

“[The reorganisation] allows us to solve relevant problems in a more focused manner … this will create synergies among departments and lead to a clearer division of labour,” Lee said.

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Lam, who will be replaced by Lee after he is sworn in as chief executive on July 1, said: “If he felt that it was not the right approach, he could throw it away and start afresh. But on this occasion, Mr John Lee felt that he agreed with the entire package.”

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and incoming leader John Lee. Photo: Sam Tsang
Chief Executive Carrie Lam and incoming leader John Lee. Photo: Sam Tsang

The three new deputy ministers will be among 13 politically appointed officials created under the revamp, adding significantly to the 43 posts already existing. Each deputy will receive HK$363,400 a month, just below the range of HK$369,650 to HK$396,000 that the three highest-ranking secretaries will earn after the latest pay rise, and about HK$60,000 less than what the chief executive receives. An additional 57 civil service posts will also be created.

The revamp’s HK$95 million annual price tag is significantly higher than the HK$30 million that Lam gave the public in January. Responding generally to the extra cost to be incurred, Lee said: “The secretaries [and deputy secretaries of departments], who are at a higher level than bureau chiefs, certainly need more relevant support.”

The revelation that Lee has signed off on the creation of a deputy secretary of justice came as a surprise, as the justice minister has only the single department to oversee, compared with the chief secretary and the finance chief, which are responsible for nine and four, respectively.

Asked about the need for the post of a deputy justice secretary, Lee pointed to the heavy workload created by the six arms in the justice department but also said he wanted to expand its duties.

“First of all, I want more efforts to be done on promoting the understanding of the [Chinese] constitution and the Basic Law,” he said. “I want the secretary for justice and the deputy to go out to explain in full the legal system in Hong Kong and the rule of law and the independent judiciary in Hong Kong, so as to let people know the true picture of Hong Kong, particularly when we have been ‘bad mouthed’ by some politicians for political reasons, criticising unfairly the system that is being practised in Hong Kong.”

The two top justice department officials would also have to promote Hong Kong’s expertise in legal services across the region, including as a hub for arbitration and other forms of dispute resolution, he said.

According to a source close to Lam’s top advisers, justice minister Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah had pointed to the need for a subordinate.

Rounding out the top echelons of the government with three deputy roles would also help officials carry out special projects the next administration hoped to achieve, such as establishing task forces dedicated to speeding up the construction of public housing, Lee added.

If approved by the legislature, Lee’s revamped administration will comprise 15 bureaus, up from the current 13, with the Transport and Housing Bureau split into the Housing Bureau and Transport and Logistics Bureau, which will report to the finance chief instead of the chief secretary.

“Development of land and the provision of housing will be in the best hands of the financial minister because finding land has been a key area related to financial matters,” Lee said, adding the reshuffle would also ease the burden on the No 2 official and allow the minister to better coordinate the remaining nine bureaus.

The existing Policy Innovation and Coordination Office and the revival of a high-level policy unit were not included in the latest government organisation chart. Lee, who was security minister before becoming chief secretary, said he saw the importance in strengthening internal policy research, but there would not be an official body to take a lead in this area before he formed his own team.

Hong Kong’s next leader John Lee reveals hiccups in forming his team

The incoming chief executive again refused to comment on names floated for key posts in his administration, only saying that a potential candidate’s “experience, knowledge and ability” would all be taken into account.

The restructuring plan will be presented to a Legislative Council subcommittee under the House Committee on Friday, and so far 44 of 90 lawmakers have signed up as members.

Among them was Tik Chi-yuen, the sole member not from the pro-establishment camp, who cast doubt over the synergies the government was confident in realising would in fact be achieved.

“The government won’t be more efficient simply by getting more hands. The crux is whether executable goals will be assigned to each of the new roles.”

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, the chairwoman of the New People’s Party’s and who was expected to head the subcommittee, said members had generally agreed to schedule extra meetings after Friday’s one to scrutinise the package.

“It has been a long while since the last government reorganisation,” she said. “Given the massive scale of the proposed one, sufficient time will be given to colleagues to ask questions.”

Legislators being floated in the political circle to join the next administration as principal officials did not join the subcommittee, including Horace Cheung Kwok-kwan, Elizabeth Quat from the Democratic Alliance for the Better and Progress of Hong Kong and Alice Mak Mei-kuen from the Federation of Trade Unions.

Without commenting on his own prospect, Cheung, also an executive councillor, said the restructuring plan had been “thoroughly discussed” in society and he expected the new deputies would strengthen the ability of the government to deliver on policies.

‘Massive’ Hong Kong government shake-up needs John Lee’s buy-in: Lam

Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said that among the dozens of new roles to be created, the deputy secretary for justice was “the least needed”, as there had been high-ranking civil servants overseeing the implementation of the department’s major policy areas.

Commenting on the addition of the two other new deputies, he said: “This might imply Lee, whose entire career has been devoted to security issues, needs veteran administrative officers who were familiar with the government operation to address his weakness in other policy areas.”

Since the handover in 1997, policy bureaus have been reorganised a number of times. A major one was in 2002 when Tung Chee-hwa outlined a new accountability system which employed principal officials on fixed-term contracts, meaning that they were not necessarily civil servants.

In 2012, the reorganisation package proposed by the then leader Leung Chun-ying cost an extra HK$70 million per year, including the creation of two bureaus and two deputy secretaries of departments. But it was shelved after months of filibustering by opposition lawmakers.

Additional reporting by Ng Kang-chung

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