Tainted water muddles accountability

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says no individual officials should be held responsible for the lead-in-water scandal.Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor says no individual officials should be held responsible for the lead-in-water scandal.

By Chris Yeung –

Flashed back to 2000, short piles found in home ownership scheme buildings had shocked and rocked the then Tung Chee-hwa administration. Amid a massive public outcry, the then Housing Authority chairwoman Rosanna Wong Yick-ming stepped down. The then housing department head Tony Miller, a civil servant, kept his job. Tung promised to find ways to improve “executive accountability.” In 2002, the principal official accountability system was inaugurated to enhance political and executive accountability.

Since then, accountability became a buzzword in the city under a partial democracy. Walking the talk of accountability, former health minister Yeoh Eng-kiong stood down in the wake of the outbreak of Sars, which killed 299 people. Former financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung resigned after the 2003 July 1 march when more than 500,000 people vented out their anger over a litany of government failures and official mistakes. One of which was Leung’s untimely purchase of a luxurious vehicle before he imposed a rise of vehicle registration fee in his 2003-2004 Budget.

16 years on, the promise of accountability has turned sour. The system and culture of accountability is faced with a fresh big test. This time over a scandal involving a list of public housing estates, where lead was found in residents’ drinking water.

On Tuesday, a government-appointed independent panel published a damning report on the scandal, which raises fresh doubts about the government promise of accountability.

In an anticipated finding, the report said the direct cause of the incident was solder containing lead. More important, it attributed the incident to a “collective failure on the part of all stakeholders to guard against the use of non-compliant solder in the plumbing system.”

The stakeholders included the Water Supplies Department, the Housing Authority, four main contractors, plumbing subcontractors and licensed plumbers, which the report said should have formed parts of a “perfect multi-barrier checking system”. That was in theory.

“In practice, however,” it said, “this multi-barrier checking system turned out to be no more than a paper system in which every party transferred the duty of supervision to the other(s), resulting in a classic case of buck-passing. Trust was misplaced and in the end it was the residents who suffered the most.”

“Trust was misplaced and in the end it was residents who suffered the most,” the report said.

‘No one should be held responsible,’ Lam says

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has promised to pursue in four aspects, namely contractual, legal, administrative and political, about what further could be done. In a defensive mode, she insisted no official should be held individual responsibility for the incident.

Residents affected by the tainted water, many still turn to bottled water in daily life, said they were unsure about which stakeholder/s should be held responsible for their plight.

Two ministers, namely Paul Chan Mo-po (development) and Anthony Cheung Bing-leung (housing and transport), said sorry, but gave no indication of holding any officials and civil servants accountable.

The Government has sought to argue it is a case of collective failure of the system, not individuals who had a hand or a say in the incident.

The message is: blame the system, not the individuals involved. In the buck-passing tainted water game, the buck stops at the system, not any highly-placed officials.

After months of hearings, the two-member panel has done their job given, identifying what went wrong and giving a list of suggestions on what can and should be done.

To show accountability, it is the job of the government to identify clearly who should be held for the political accountability and executive accountability in the incident, not to blur the lines of accountability.

Doing so will make a mockery of the government promise of enhancing accountability made when Tung led his team of political appointees to mark a big step towards an accountable governing system.

Chris Yeung is founder and editor of the Voice of Hong Kong website. He is a veteran journalist formerly worked with the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Journal. He writes on Greater China issues.

Photo: Picture taken from RTHK’s news website





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