Tim Hamlett | Hong Kong Free Press
“There is an antidote to this kind of false news: clear and consistent policy clearly and consistently explained. Is that too much to ask?” writes Tim Hamlett.
Barber shops have reopened. How long since they were closed? One week, two? It seems that our leaders have increasing difficulty in making their minds up. Yesterday schools were to close in March for mass testing. Today the mass testing is not a priority… if nobody changes their mind, that is.
Like many households, mine has stocked up on frozen food and tins, in case of a sudden lockdown. This possibility has been a talking point for a long time. I am no longer sure whether the date of the lockdown is this month, next month, next year or never.
Similarly, what exactly, in anything, will be locked down? Reports of the last lockdown had barely hit the headlines before the Financial Secretary announced that the financial market would be unaffected during mass testing. No doubt other secretaries will not be slow, if the postponed or cancelled lockdown or mass testing exercise is unpostponed or uncancelled, to find parts of their empire which are too important to be shut down.
What makes this constant uncertainty particularly galling is that official hints and nameless briefings are often followed by official on-the-record contradictions of the hints and briefings, combined with the heart-rending complaint that the smooth machinery of government is being sabotaged by “false news.”
Leadership positions can be divided into two categories.
Many years ago I read a moving piece about a family of tightrope walkers who, in a horrific accident, dropped off the rope en masse. Some of them died, and some of them were so badly injured that they would never perform again. The survivors, led by the patriarch of the family, returned to the circus some months later.
Naturally there was a full house for the first performance after the accident. The family did their human pyramid and, just when things were looking most precarious, the old man at the bottom wobbled.
Ladies screamed and fainted. Connoisseurs were lost in admiration. For a really proficient tightrope walker the deliberate wobble is a crowning accomplishment. The art of the circus is to make the apparently impossible look easy, but not too easy.
Contrast this with the Russian general described by Tolstoy in War and Peace. Our hero, who is a staff officer, notices that his general rarely gives orders. But he has a way of giving the impression that everything happening is according to plan, even though it obviously isn’t (this is the battle of Austerlitz, which ended badly for the Russians) so officers who arrived looking harassed and pessimistic leave looking relaxed and confident.
You would think that an administration whose head is throughly addicted to military metaphors would aspire to the second type of leadership, rather than the first.
We all know public administration is difficult. As political theorist Michael Oakeshott put it: “In political activity… men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbor for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel.”
There may be a time, when things are stultifyingly quiet, for a deliberate wobble to wake us all up. But generally, and particularly in times of crisis, the art of political leadership is to make it look as if things are going according to plan, as if our leaders know what they are doing – even if, in reality, they are “crossing the river by feeling the rocks” – as if reasonable decisions are being made and having been made, implemented.
What we get instead is the muffled rumblings of a closed door debate. Some of the participants leak, some of them have beliefs attributed to them by “commentators” and some of them feel no need for public participation in decision-making at all.
Eventually, the Chief Executive emerges and tells us what has been decided. Except that it hasn’t been decided. The debate continues and next week she will emerge and tell us that something else has been decided.
The only consistent policy we have seen so far is a stringent limit on outdoor gatherings. And I’m afraid very few people believe that is motivated entirely by concern for the public’s health.
For our next trick: universal testing. I note with dismay that this has been taken off the table, until the government finds a time it considers suitable. Whether we are locking the stable door after the horse has bolted or sending out a search party but waiting until the horse is already on its way back to the stable remains to be seen.
Meanwhile researchers at the University of Hong Kong have determined that the ban on dining out in the evening had no measurable effect on the spread of the virus while other social distancing measures were in place. I do not doubt that if they bothered, they would find out the same thing about the requirement that people should wear face masks when walking in country parks.
We are not following science. We are lurching from brainwave to brainwave. Under the circumstances it is entirely unsurprising that rumours should circulate about what is coming next. There is an antidote to this kind of false news: clear and consistent policy clearly and consistently explained. Is that too much to ask?