Budget leaves elderly in cold
IT WAS not an easy budget to take issue with. Most criticisms, such as the alleged lack of tax concessions, said more about the shortcomings of those making them than anything else.
Yet there is one legitimate complaint about Financial Secretary Sir Hamish Macleod's farewell address, one that is of significance to Wednesday's Legislative Council debate on the scrapping of the old age pension scheme (OPS).
It was one missed by many of the most vocal critics, such as the well-paid analysts and business-sector politicians who were more preoccupied with Sir Hamish's revenue proposals.
But those who care more about the interests of the less well-off were quick to spot the hole. The Budget unequivocally rejects expectations and official hints that the poorest among Hong Kong's elderly, whose hopes of a secure retirement have been dashed by the scrapping of the OPS, might be compensated by an immediate increase in welfare payments.
That is what many believe Deputy Secretary for Education and Manpower Jacqueline Willis suggested during her recent consultation exercise. Other officials had also indicated such increases were an integral part of the decision to abandon the OPS.
The actual cost need not have been very high.
Many elderly recipients of Comprehensive Social Security Assistance already receive close to the $2,300 a month political parties are demanding be set as a uniform benefit.
Estimates vary, but some suggest the increase will only cost $750 million a year, a pittance for a government awash with $148 billion in reserves.
But now Sir Hamish - confirming earlier such hints by Governor Chris Patten - has not only ruled out any increase this year, but has also cast doubt on whether it will ever occur.
His Budget was littered with warnings about the need to be ultra-cautious in deciding whether to give the poorest of Hong Kong's elderly any more to live on.
'I would urge that we do not rush headlong into such a major decision,' Sir Hamish said. 'There is a genuine need to see the results of the household expenditure survey towards the end of the year and, in the light of those results to assess calmly and rationally the appropriate level of payments.
'There is only so much extra that we can do at any one time,' he said.
'We therefore have to set priorities. And setting priorities means that if you give a high priority to one area you must give a lower priority to another area.' This need not have been in the Budget.
Just as he refused to get involved in Secretary for Transport Haider Barma's ill-fated crusade to increase the cost of owning a car, Sir Hamish could - and arguably should - have steered clear of retirement protection, arguing it was none of the Financial Secretary's business.
Instead Sir Hamish, ever-generous to his colleagues, if not the elderly, chose to save them the task of announcing the bad news by slipping it in amid the otherwise good news of the Budget.
That was enough to blunt its immediate impact - but not enough to escape the eagle eye of pro-Beijing legislator Tam Yiu-chung, who was quick to denounce the move.
Pro-democracy legislators also expressed concern, fearing Sir Hamish's comment on awaiting the survey results was a delaying tactic that would stall increases until 1997.
On Wednesday, these legislators will face a government-sponsored motion calling for support for its latest retirement protection proposal: compulsory private provident funds.
Increasingly the administration is resorting to bullying tactics to try to secure its passage.
Mr Patten recently warned that, if legislators rejected it, the Government might simply forget about trying to help the elderly.
But, now that Sir Hamish has made it clear there is no immediate prospect of mandatory private provident funds being accompanied by higher social welfare payments, legislators may think twice about bowing to such threats.