[SCMP Column] No Consensus Please

January 02, 2016

You know we always break New Year Resolutions. So I am going to deal with one breakage right away. I should never talk about politics. But today – and Monday – I am going to talk politics. After getting it out of my system, I hope I can stay away – and talk about more substantive and worthwhile things – for the rest of the year. First, Hong Kong politics. Then on Monday, the politics out there beyond our borders.

Talking Hong Kong politics depresses me. Because at present I see no route to a system that can serve us and China as we all wish it could. Our leaders seem not to recognize why the system is so fatally flawed. They seem not to recognize that effective political leadership is about recognizing differences, and brokering compromises. They seem not to recognize that such brokered compromises forge alliances of interest that are distilled in manifestos, and that manifestos are indispensable for those who win political office to deliver the mandates that enable them to make tough decisions that are in our society’s interest, but are inevitably opposed by groups with their own interests to protect.

Put on one side the depressing reality that the only power of Legislators is the power to create mischief, and that our leadership is denied access to parties that might enable them to broker manifestos and make decisions in confidence that they have a mandate to do so. These are problems embedded in the political system forged (in good faith) by Britain and China, which have been enshrined in the Basic Law and are going to take massive courage and conviction to change.

Look instead at our administration’s pointless obsession with consensus. So often, consultations have come to nought because the government has failed to find consensus. Again and again it has backed away from important decisions – like retirement provision, or health care reform, or waste incineration, or abolition of the outdated and unjust “ding uk” land sales rights for new territories villagers – because there was no consensus. They seem not to recognize that in any modern political society, the principle of consensus can lead to only one end – inertia.

Almost exactly a year ago I audited our Chief Executives’ obsession with the idea of “consensus” by tracking their use of the word in policy addresses since 1997. It was Donald Tsang who took the use of the word to a crescendo in 2006 and 2007 with over 10 references in each address, but it has subsided only slightly since under the current administration.

Without really being sure, I have wondered whether the obsession with “consensus” has its roots in Confucian thought. Whether yes or no, the reality is that there is no place for consensus in politics. I repeat today what I said a year ago during that tracking exercise: “Modern complex societies are riddled with large and perfectly reasonable differences of opinion, and the very essence of democracy is to broker those differences… 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.”

To make the tough decisions and compromises that political leaders have to make in the interests of our society, a leader – whether CY Leung, or Barak Obama, or Xi Jinping – has to roll up sleeves, arm-wrestle compromises with different interests, and broker plans that are in the interests of the majority. In a democracy driven by party politics, this messy process happens naturally: political parties build coalitions of support around a compromise policy document – a manifesto – and if they win an election based on that manifesto then two things naturally happen: the government has a mandate to act, even in the face of opposition; and the groups that signed on to the coalition of support that forged the manifesto are bound to lobby in support.

In Hong Kong, where the Basic Law prevents our leaders from using party politics to win office, the natural process of building manifestos and winning mandates does not occur. But just because the party route to building mandates is blocked does not mean the need disappears. CY Leung and his administration must simply find another route to brokering compromises, and forging mandates. They have resorted to a perpetual cycle of consultations, and these are not working.

I sense that part of our problem is that we have in CY Leung a temperamentally introverted leader who believes this problem is best solved by retreating behind closed doors at the end of each day and trying to sort these issues out himself. This requires huge brainpower – which perhaps he has – but it is an exhausting and lonely process. Most important, it is fundamentally undemocratic. It preempts the invaluable brainstorming process of building coalitions that would deliver to our administration the allies and advocates that would stand shoulder to shoulder with them in driving policy decisions through into reality. In short, it leads inevitably to exhausting procrastination.

So here perhaps is a political resolution for 2016. Let us short circuit the endless consultation cycle, bury the quest for consensus, and recognize that there will always – and quite naturally – be interest groups that will be opposed to important decisions that are on balance in the public interest. Let our leaders set about forging some coalitions of support around priority initiatives – like reforming health care, or forging a retirement protection scheme for the future – and follow the Nike mantra: Just do it.
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