Milking a U-turn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am

The government's budget U-turn - withdrawing a proposal to inject HK$6,000 into each Mandatory Provident Fund account and replacing it with a cash handout to permanent residents and a cut in salaries tax - should make everybody happy. The change of tone in public discourse occurred in a very short time, showing that even a day in politics is a long time, especially in our information-rich open society.

The budget's original intention was to curb inflation, stabilise property prices and invest in the future, but it failed to garner public support. The plan to inject money into MPF accounts was highly unpopular because it was viewed as unfair and not an effective poverty relief measure. Hence, it spurred the biggest political crisis for the government since the July 1 march in 2003. Fortunately, the administration made a decisive and dramatic about-turn, showing officials are receptive to public sentiment and still have an ounce of political intelligence. Let's hope the officials have learned from this and will not repeat the mistake.

The unpopular budget became a tool for many politicians to gain political advantage and increase their popularity. Opportunists from across the political spectrum, including pan-democrats and the pro-establishment camp, all pointed their accusatory finger at the budget, further fanning public outrage at the administration. They inadvertently created a so-called budget revolt and triggered a 'bauhinia revolution', cleverly named after the would-be 'jasmine revolution' on the mainland.

The Democratic Party became accidental heroes by calling on teachers and the general public to join demonstrations against the budget. Many might not have agreed with the motive but at least it provided a public platform for people from all walks of life to vent their discontent.

The pro-establishment camp refused to be left behind in this so-called revolution, especially with the district council elections this year and the Legislative Council poll next year. This kind of volatile political atmosphere forced the government to change its mind to avoid a massive political fallout. As the Chinese saying goes, it managed to 'rein in the horse at the edge of the cliff'.

But even though the latest cash giveaways are generally accepted by the people, the Democratic Party still insists on further protests. As politicians working for the people, they should listen to the people. Instead, they demand that the government set long-term policy to deal with deep-rooted social conflicts.

Let's not judge whether their proposal is appropriate; the fact is we need to address pressing problems and have to provide solutions with instant results. The democrats are just as disconnected from reality as the administration.

If the government were to allocate tens of billions of dollars for the formulation of long-term policy, it would have achieved very little, like its HK$50 billion financing proposal for a voluntary medical insurance scheme. It may be a grand plan, but it is neither practical nor realistic.

The pro-government camp was equally opportunistic. The ideas behind many of the budget proposals actually came from its members. But when the public attacked the budget, they joined the chorus of criticism and turned against the administration. They even pretended it was their efforts that forced the government to compromise.

New People's Party lawmaker Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee and party member Michael Tien Puk-sun even took credit for the cash giveaway proposal. Legislator Wong Kwok-hing, a member of the Federation of Trade Unions, said he was proud to be a Hongkonger after the financial secretary's budget compromise. What was he trying to imply? The political crisis has exposed the true colours of many of our politicians.

As Abraham Lincoln said: 'You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.'

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator