Nothing is more certain to come a cropper than a politician trying to seize the moral high ground. There we had the Chief Secretary, Ms. Carrie Lam, attempting a bit of moral education for a group of local kids. Some people, she complained, had been “lying with their eyes open” to get into the Legislative Council.

Readers will I know be shocked – shocked! – at the notion that politicians might bend the truth in an effort to get elected. Whatever next? We may also find it difficult to believe that this has never happened before. But Ms. Lam, who leads a sheltered existence in which getting elected does not feature, can perhaps be forgiven for taking an idealistic view of this matter.

Carrie Lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: GovHK.

However, having taken such a puritanical line on this point, Ms. Lam should have expected that the rest of her speech would be examined closely by people looking for signs of pots calling kettles black. And indeed there were one or two items which strained credulity a bit.

For example, Ms. Lam gave the impression that the decision to veto the candidacy of some LegCo election candidates was taken by the returning officers themselves. Now this gets us into a grey area. Ms. Lam said, rather daringly, that only returning officers had the power to reject candidates. This was daring because in some views of the law nobody has the power to reject candidates.

The implication was that the returning officers had made the decision without anyone jogging their elbows, as it were. The problem with this is that the returning officers are, after all, fairly junior members of the administration. I am sure nobody did anything so crass as to order them to reject candidates in certain categories, but that would not be necessary.

returning officers
Returning officers Alan Lo and Cora Ho. Photo: GovHK.

The way these things are done is that the returning officer receives a polite gentlemanly (or possibly ladylike) memo drawing his attention to some important features of his powers and obligations with regard to candidates who may not be passionately in love with the basic law. No further communication would be required. Anyone bright enough to be in the Administrative Officer grade would effortlessly interpret it as indicating that in the Administration’s view there were enough lying Leungs in the corridors of power already.

However this is a rather complex constitutional point, which probably slid by the youthful audience. Another one has reverberated vigorously since. Ms. Lam also said, and the veracity of the quote is not disputed, “Take Article 107 as an example. I do not agree with it.”

This is the “balanced budget” article and Ms. Lam went on to say, as any bright citizen might, that a government with $800 million in reserves should spend some of it. This was interpreted by some reporters as a veiled poke at the Financial Secretary, who would be her rival for the post of Chief Executive if both of them ran for it.

Ms. Lam then produced an exquisite explanation: “That ‘I’ is not myself as the Chief Secretary for Administration. I was saying if you challenge or disagree with the Basic Law you may think you may not agree. So the ‘I’ was actually another person.”

Carrie Lam John Tsang
Carrie Lam and John Tsang. File Photo: Stand News/Apple Daily.

This is fascinating. It seems that when Ms. Lam speaks there are two possible I’s present: the one who is Chief Secretary for Administration and the one who isn’t. This presents some difficulty in interpreting her comments on other matters.

“Some people have been thinking that I am ambitious or I have the intention to run in the chief executive election… I want to tell these people that they are just wasting their efforts.” Not a very categorical denial anyway, but rendered even more tricky by the fact that Ms. Lam has two I’s.

Is the one with no ambition the Chief Secretary or the other one? If she turns up in the chief executive election after all, will we be told that the one who wanted to tell people they were wasting their efforts is not the ‘I’ who subsequently decided to give it a go? Life might be easier for all of us if Ms. Lam stuck to the two-eyed double speak used by conventional politicians.

Whichever of Ms. Lam’s I’s is speaking, though, it is clearly out of order in offering a legal defence of the actions of returning officers. This matter is the subject of a court case. It is “sub judice,” as the saying has it. It is intolerable that senior government officials should be filling the public sphere with their opinions on matters which the judge will have to decide. The Secretary for Justice, Mr. Rimsky Yuen, should be telling the boys and girls to shut up. Starting, alas, with himself.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.