Donald Tsang

Knee-jerk government the last thing we need

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

The government has tackled complaints by new migrants that the HK$6,000 post-budget handout to adult permanent residents is discriminatory by making another U-turn. The payment will be extended to the least well-off of them through the Community Care Fund, set up to help our poorest citizens. It is important not to leave the neediest behind and, from that point of view, it is good that the government will be extending a helping hand. But there is a vexing problem that has been created by the decision: who is going to come forward next with a claim for a handout?

There are several groups that have been excluded and each can make a valid argument. Tax-paying residents who are perhaps only a year or two off permanent resident status have every reason for such a claim. Domestic helpers from overseas, not included in the minimum wage law, also have a case. With people who do not even live here qualifying - anyone over 18 years of age who is a permanent resident will get the payout - all who in some way contribute to our economy can make a case for inclusion.

Uncertainty is no way to run a city. But that is the consequence of a reactive, step-by-step way of governing. It is what our government is steadily succumbing to as it tries to allay criticism. The more authorities cave in to demands, the less certain will be our future.

There are, after all, large financial and social costs involved. Pressure on Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah to give some of the more than HK$71 billion surplus back to the community in the budget resulted in an allocation of HK$24 billion to MPF accounts. Anger that the measure did not allow people to benefit immediately resulted in that being changed to the HK$6,000 payment to all permanent residents, amounting to about HK$40 billion. Just which new migrants will be eligible following the latest U-turn is still being discussed, but the bill is likely to amount to around HK$1.5 billion.

This is a rich city, but authorities cannot continue giving handouts in response to public concerns. Hong Kong, with the challenges of a fast-ageing population, air pollution and competition from elsewhere in the region, cannot afford so short-sighted an approach. Health care reform and a more meaningful pension system are just two of the priorities, and both involve big financial outlays. We need to be planning for the future, not handing out valuable resources on a whim. The lack of a strategy seems obvious from the about-faces. This creates all manner of problems for efforts to govern effectively. Knee-jerk reactions create expectations that policies can be changed at short notice. With the budget coming up for approval, there is a need for the government to reassert its authority. Budgets have to be carefully thought out. It is essential for effective governing that calculations are accurate and clearly laid out. Months of planning go into them. In their pages are details of what funding is available, how it is to be spent, what the benefits will be. All items have to be plainly accounted for.

That is not apparent with Tsang's latest budget. The piecemeal approach makes determining the cost increasingly difficult. Worse, the amounts involved are significant. Large, one-off payouts made at short notice are not a viable or responsible way to run Hong Kong.

Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's government has less than 18 months left in office. It has an obligation to spell out its plans. There are important issues that need tackling and it should explain how it is going to deal with them. This is not a time for short-sightedness. We need assertive, confident leadership.