The wages of reasoned debate

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 April, 2006, 12:00am

The rhetoric against this year's budget, among political parties, was not a fundamental attack on the blueprint. Few would have said there was a serious chance that legislators would veto it in last week's vote.

After all, it contained no hefty tax rises and no controversial spending or revenue-raising proposals. Despite criticism that Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen had not handed enough goodies to the people, there was no strong public clamour for legislators to scuttle the budget.

Doing so could have resulted in a constitutional crisis, and legislators were not prepared to go that far. Even if the pan-democratic camp had voted against it in a bloc, the government still had enough support to defeat them. That might have embarrassed Mr Tang, but there would have been no substantive negative impact on governance.

Last Wednesday's vote would have been a routine exercise if not for the government's agreement to consider proposals for new initiatives, made by political parties. The game play between the administration and the Legislative Council seemed to follow a script.

As soon as the budget was tabled, legislators from various political camps criticised Mr Tang for being too conservative in forecasting Hong Kong's surplus and granting tax concessions, and half-hearted in helping the poor.

In the following debate, lawmakers floated a string of proposals. These included a tax allowance for associate degree tuition fees, a child development fund, broadening of a transport subsidy scheme and measures to relieve unemployment in the construction sector.

The wish list was generally pragmatic, and not in conflict with basic fiscal principles. The proposals could have been seen as last-ditch efforts by political parties trying to show voters that they had fought as hard as possible to improve the budget.

They succeeded in opening room for political compromises through subsequent discussions about the budgetary proposals - giving them a better chance of consideration and adoption by the government.

The post-budget consultations could have turned into displays of political showmanship by both sides. The fact that they did not show there have been some subtle changes in their mindsets and approach to dealing with livelihood issues.

For his part, Mr Tang needed to show that he was listening, and was open-minded, to comments and proposals. That was despite the fact that he could simply have shut the door to changes, pending further discussion after the budget's passage.

Legislators, meanwhile, needed an exit that would let them climb down from their proposal for concessions on the salaries tax - so they could back the budget. The behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings bore fruit on the eve of the budget vote. As soon as legislators reacted positively to the government's concessions, the budget's passage by a wide margin became a foregone conclusion.

The bargaining between the government and political parties generated unease in some quarters of the community. Admittedly, officials needed to manage the process with caution, to avoid compromising the integrity of the budget's principles, substance and process.

But party politics and representative democracy have been widely accepted in the community as the way forward. Therefore, bargaining between the government and Legco on issues such as the budget - in line with the overall interests of society - is an integral part of the political process.

There has been much hype about strong governance and an executive-led system since Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen took power.

The ending of the budget process, with all parties seemingly happy, has shed some light on the room for flexibility and win-win scenarios in government-legislature relations.

Chris Yeung is the Post's editor-at-large