Watch, and wonder

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 February, 2011, 12:00am


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There's a game I play whenever I watch a budget speech on TV. I compare the number of times I yawn to the times the financial secretary looks up from his script. He always loses. I always yawn more times than he looks up at the people he is supposedly talking to. I won again last Wednesday.

For two hours, John Tsang Chun-wah droned on with head bowed, reading to us rather than inspiring us. This time I wondered: is this the best we deserve in a financial secretary? He, after all, decides how we should spend our money to shape our future. And we're not talking peanuts. We're talking hundreds of billions of dollars.

There is, of course, little we can do if Tsang wants to inflict on us his decisions on how we should shape our future by reading from a recycled script without making eye contact. He is the financial secretary, after all, not one that we chose but one that we have no choice but to live with. Still, the people are starving for a government vision, even if read in monotone. The script's got to have substance.

Here's another game you can play. All the government's men, from the chief executive down, lined up to say his script had substance. All the democratically elected members of the Legislative Council - they're the ones with the mandate to reflect the people's views - lined up to say it didn't. Who's right?

Don't play that game with the financial secretary. He'll tell you he's right, that he knows best how to spend your money. There's nothing you can do about that. He doesn't owe his job to you.

This year, he spent HK$24 billion on giving every MPF account holder HK$6,000. It doesn't matter whether you're Hong Kong's top salary earner worth millions and don't really need the money or a lowly office clerk who really needs it.

You'll all get the same amount. When asked at a press conference the rationale for this, Tsang agitatedly ducked the question.

Well, at least he's fair. He doesn't discriminate against the rich. He gave every household - rich and poor - HK$1,800 worth of free electricity. And he gave a rates waiver of up to HK$6,000 for all homeowners, regardless of whether your home is on the Peak or in a slum.

If you're a billionaire with an MPF account who uses electricity, owns a fancy home and pays rates, you'll get HK$13,800 of the people's money for free, no questions asked. Tsang says his handouts are targeted at those who most need it. Now there's vision for you.

But let's not be too harsh on the financial secretary. He is the product of a long line of bureaucrats who see budgets as a time for self-congratulation for all the saintly things they've done for the people.

It doesn't matter that the people may not think that the things are saintly. Our financial secretaries feel no pressing need to take notice.

With bureaucratic blood running so deep in his veins, Tsang showed all the traits of his breed. Public clamour for the people's money to be spent in innovative new ways drew a smug retort from Tsang who said it didn't matter if ideas were new or old as long as they worked. It was his way of telling us he believes all his ideas are working.

You may wonder how giving away the people's money to even top earners is a good idea. You may wonder, too, if that money isn't better spent by targeting it at, say, all those frail old men and women you see collecting cardboard boxes for a living. And you may wonder how land for flats years down the road can possibly help families already priced out of the market now.

So many things to wonder about, but wonder about this, too: Tsang made a great show of consulting the people and political parties before his budget.

How come, after having consulted everyone, he still produced a budget that has drawn such angry opposition from all the people he consulted? Did he really listen?

Michael Chugani is a columnist and broadcaster