A moral budget?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2010, 12:00am

Given some of the government PR on, for example, health insurance, it looks like the budget may be different this year. It seems the administration may have finally decided to take broader steps for the future instead of just making budget day an annual ritual to grandstand on piecemeal, short-term relief measures that don't solve social problems or placate public discontent.

At the same time, it would be naive to believe that the government's thoughts on competing with private insurers will resolve our need for health reform. In his budget, the financial secretary might only introduce this concept as a step before (or an introduction to) the consultation exercise later this year. No doubt, the whole exercise is going to be controversial.

Hong Kong has an ageing population and ranks third in the world for life expectancy, so the government must start anticipating the growing pressure that will be placed on the public health care system. Standing up against insurance companies is a brave first step; it remains to be seen whether it will make insurers do their job of providing coverage for those who really need it - those with pre-existing health conditions - while making health care affordable for all. Above all, the government will need public support to succeed.

The government must give much more thought to becoming an insurer, taking into account the Medicare experience Americans are struggling with today. Though not the same, Medicare was created because the elderly had difficulty securing affordable private insurance. Medicare and whatever the Hong Kong government's plans will be called, are no doubt well-intended. Adequate and affordable health care, via adequate and affordable health insurance, should be a necessity, not a luxury.

More important, the plan might spark much needed public discussion on what we truly value, instead of the numbingly repetitious arguments over short-term budget concessions, like waiving government rates and handing out tax rebates, that haunt the government year after year. And if we agree with Reverend Jim Wallis, that budgets are 'moral documents' that reflect our values in the ways we spend our money, then we need to think in greater depth about our wants and our needs, and the way we treat the elderly, the poor and the vulnerable.

Policy wonks all too often rely solely on cost-benefit analyses. It should be disheartening to hear attacks on calls for more resources for the elderly because we need to 'invest in our future'. Skimping on the retired who have paid their dues (in this case, taxes) is not what we have been taught.

When we see old folk fighting over cardboard boxes on the streets, we should feel injustice and anger about a system that is leaving too many people behind. And when so many of the elderly are no longer spending their 'fruit money' on fruit, but on medical expenses or food, then to say that an overhaul of our social security system is too troublesome is downright detestable. There is also something wrong about people living and dying under bridges and in 'cages' when we spend HK$15 million a year maintaining empty Home Ownership Scheme and Housing Society flats.

The government must show some spine and face up to the property tycoons to defend the principle of public housing and home-ownership policies. Having a roof over one's head should be considered a basic need, not a want. With luxury property prices driving home prices up, the government must consider countermeasures, like a luxury-home tax, that some political parties have suggested. Those who buy luxury apartments for profit should help pay for the homes of those who cannot afford them. And hardworking people making a modest living should be able to afford a modest home.

The government needs to show the Hong Kong people on Wednesday that it values fairness, opportunity, social responsibility and compassion, and the financial secretary must deliver more than the usual 'what's in it for me' budget.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA