Cautious steps reflect sense of realism

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 12:00am

Henry Tang Ying-yen has treaded cautiously in a time of uncertainty. Rejecting calls for a cut in salaries tax, he has opted instead for modest concessions on child and aged-parent allowances, stressing the importance that the government attaches to care for the young and the old.

In an apparent move to avoid controversy, the financial secretary decided not to slash the alcohol duty even though he gave a strong case for a such a reduction.

With the economic recovery still in its early stages and public expectations over generosity in the budget low, Mr Tang settled for a blueprint that lacked any pleasant surprises, bold initiatives and uplifting rhetoric.

If his maiden budget speech last year was aimed at allowing the community to take a respite, this time Mr Tang was hoping to buy more time for the early stages of his economic and budgetary measures to bear further fruit before contemplating how to share this.

This may sound conservative. His entire approach underlined a depth of caution over the economic recovery and spending and revenue programmes for balancing the budget by 2008-09.

Equally important, the room for drastic change in the budget has been significantly limited in view of former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's resignation.

A case in point was the decision to defer a public consultation on the introduction of a goods and services tax until after the next chief executive election.

Even though the possibility of the plan being reversed appears remote, the schedule has inevitably been affected by the leadership change.

The budgetary approach has been further compounded by Mr Tang's possible candidacy in the July 10 election.

Regardless of his tax plans, how he handled the budget will lead to speculation about whether or not it is part of his game plan to run for the top post.

Even if he wanted to do so, any drastic tax cuts would have been seen by sceptics as a politically motivated giveaway to boost his popularity.

Mr Tang emphasised at yesterday's press conference that his blueprint was 'not an election [campaign] budget'.

This revealed the difficulty the financial secretary faced in striking a balance between politics and economics.

But like the text of the 113-paragraph speech, the budget's theme of promoting social stability and economic development is unlikely to inspire. It reflects a sense of realism in the mindset of a transitional administration in a time of political and economic change.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor at large