Weighing the burden of official spending

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 November, 2003, 12:00am

'The government should never consider touching those items which are livelihood-related. But others such as heavily subsidised services which affect only big corporations should be raised.'

Legislator Lee Cheuk-yan,

Confederation of Trade Unions

I SHALL STAKE the contents of my wallet that Mr Lee has never looked at the list of government fees and charges, let alone scrutinised it for items that are not livelihood-related or that represent heavily subsidised services affecting only big corporations.

The list has 56 headings and, as to sub-headings and individual items, well, let me just say that I would have an easy three days if I were to use the entire space allotted to this column to run them all in fine print and the boss did not list me as being on leave again for doing it.

It might prove a useful service to Mr Lee, however. He might be able to cite something specific rather than just blather on about livelihood and big corporations.

But, as I am constrained by space, let me just take the 12 major headings that accounted for more than 80 per cent of total revenue of HK$9.7 billion last year from fees and charges. If Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen is serious about raising more money from them next year, the brunt of his measures will have to fall on these 12.

The biggest obviously is transport. Almost all of it, however, comes from vehicle and driving licences. There are no big corporations here, just everyday people whose livelihood is directly affected by what they have to pay to get on the road. Shall we raise drivers' licence fees for taxis, Mr Lee? Guess who would pay in the end if we did.

Then comes civil aviation and, yes, it involves plenty of big corporations, Cathay Pacific Airways, for instance, which is one of my favourite targets. The problem, however, is that while the government took in $809.4 million from civil aviation fees and charges last year, the highest figure I can see for the department's recurrent expenditure is $631.9 million. It seems we do not have one of Mr Lee's heavily subsidised services here.

As much to the point, has Mr Lee ever taken a flight for a holiday abroad? Might this not be a livelihood issue? Guess whom the airlines will charge in the end if we raise these fees and charges further.

Let us try Customs and Excise. Almost all of its fees and charges revenue comes from import and export declarations. Export is a corporate business. Let us therefore put a rocket under those fees, enough of one to send them to the moon.

Ah yes, but the livelihood of almost everyone in Hong Kong depends crucially on the health of foreign trade. If people lose their jobs because we have pinched their employers' margins too much with big fees, guess who loses. The same thing goes for Marine and Trade and Industry Department fees, most of which, by the way, are derived from small corporations, not big ones.

Look elsewhere on that list of the top 12 and you find only services that cover costs incurred for business (Printing Department) or are directly related to everyday livelihood matters.

Here then may we find heavily subsidised services for big corporations that do not pay enough in the fees and charges for those services to cover their cost?

Good question. Find them for me, Mr Lee, and I shall be happy to join you in calling for them to be raised immediately.

And where may we find fees and charges not related to peoples' livelihoods?

Answer: There are none. Every cent that government raises from the public affects the public's livelihood in one way or another, whether through fees and charges for specific services or through general taxes. All sources of government revenue impose a burden on the public.

It is pointless to argue that fees and charges should not be raised at present because economic recovery is still fragile and such measures will endanger the recovery.

If we spend money, we have to raise it. There will always be a burden when we do it and whether it is imposed on one shoulder or the other or both at the same time it is still that much extra weight.

The key to easing the burden is not how we place it on our shoulders but how much we should carry in the first place.

Cut government spending and this problem takes care of itself.

So let us hear some proposals from Mr Lee on where he would cut spending.