英文

Common Nonsense : The Poor Servant and the Poor Master she doesn't Serve

【明報專訊】THAT a humble and diligent servant has to serve two masters is not just a farce but a curse. We are so cursed, though we weren't fully aware of it until now. Don't get me wrong, I'm not that servant but nevertheless the curse strangles the innocents like me too. The cursed servant in question is the public servant whom the eighteen District Councils of HKSAR respectively appointed as the Secretary to the Council under the District Council Ordinance. He or she (alas, hereafter "she" and the female derivatives mean both he and she, him and her, his and her indeed!) usually is a Senior Executive Officer from the Home Affairs Department well versed in public administration and equally well experienced in the perplexing web of bureaucratic interests. The Secretary to the District Council serves the Council by providing it the administrative and secretarial support for the discharge of its duty under the District Council Ordinance, namely, advising the government on matters affecting the well-being of the people in the District. Not really an onerous and burdensome task for the Secretary in the better times. Now, of course, is not one of those times.

But, hang on, the Secretary herself is a civil servant in the employ of the government and has to observe and carry out any lawful and reasonable order of the superior. What would happen if the government orders the Secretary not to assist the Council due to the coronavirus spread? To serve or not to serve, that is not the question! The question is: To serve whom? Which one is the bigger Master! Probably the Secretary's mind would be as divided as that of Gollum who in The Lord of the Rings is so torn apart by his lust for the Ring and the will to be free from it forever.

We all have learnt the Gollum's destiny and his finale. Then how's our Madam Secretary? It turned out that her heart has gone to the government and has accordingly denied the Council any administrative support of any meeting including but not limited to the notification of the meeting to be convened, the distribution of discussion documents, the preparation of minutes and even the access to the conference room which is situated inside the government premises! It's quite a package. The Council is left in limbo, even though it is determined to provide its humble advice on combating the coronavirus epidemic in this time of stress and distress.

The Secretary, even under the instructions of the government and not by her free will, is usurping the power which she isn't conferred with, namely, overriding the Council's decision on when and where and how a meeting is convened, thereby jeopardising the people's mandate visibly behind the many backs of the many councillors. In that sense, the Secretary is no longer secretarial but political. What is political? The classic formulation is still in Max Weber's prose:

When a question is described as "a political question", when a minister or official is said to be "political", or when a decision has been made "for political reasons" — in every case, what is meant is the same: the question was answered, the official's sphere of activity was defined, the decision was made primarily on the basis of delegating, preserving, or reassigning power. (Quoted from the 2020 English version of "The Politician's Work" which is customarily translated as "Politics as a Vocation")

The Secretary being a bureaucrat is usurping the political power to determine the course of action to be taken by the Council which is returned by the popular vote. This is ultra vires (越權), illegal and unconstitutional in broad daylight. But like too many sins and crimes committed by the authorities since last summer, the Secretary's also fare very well with impunity. That's nonsense, so so so common in this column and elsewhere.

■By Lawrence Lau 劉偉聰

​Lawrence is a life debater who has to debate with his life. Being a barrister makes him a living while reading and writing gives him a life. This is his cat 寅恪.

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