Unspent funds leave mega stink

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 June, 2011, 12:00am


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Europe might have been hit by an E Coli outbreak, but have you heard about the virulent strain of bacteria that is commonplace in the government? 'It's sh*t,' said a disgruntled member of the public who has been badly affected by 'MEF'. That's the government's Mega Events Fund, which is starting to stink.

It seems the government has a big problem in trying to give money away. Just look at Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah, who is still struggling to hand out HK$6,000 to every adult citizen from his budget - make that the revised budget after he couldn't quite get it right the first time around.

It's the same with the MEF. Set up two years ago with an initial kitty of HK$100 million, the tourism-boosting initiative was expected to turn our city into an events capital - hardly the case. The life span for the project was three years and, with less than 10 months to go, we discover nearly HK$50 million is still left in the fund.

The money was meant for sports, arts and culture. Just concentrating on sports, only six events have been backed so far, and two of these are more recreational festivities than real competitive sporting events: dragon boating (twice) and lion-dancing. Take away the money given to them (HK$10 million) and you are left with just two sports - the Hong Kong Tennis Classic (twice supported to the tune of HK$14 million) and this December's Hong Kong Golf Open (HK$8 million) - sharing HK$22 million between them.

Hong Kong has more than 70 sporting associations, yet only two have survived the inquisition before securing funds. The examination begins with the applicant having to prove it is a non-profit-making organisation and show a willingness to share its financial details and records with the government.

If this is not intrusive enough, the applicant then has to meet key performance goals set by the MEF, and one of the most onerous is that at least 10,000 people turn up for the event. There are many more, like providing accounting and documentation as to how every single cent is spent.

The government has got waylaid with its exacting and bureaucratic-type conditions. It is a knee-jerk reaction to the controversy that stemmed from the Harbour Fest concerts held after the 2003 Sars outbreak. One observer said: 'Everyone in government is just scared to put his head on the line, hence the rules that only non-profit-making organisations can get involved and, all those key performance measures.'

The other viewpoint is the government only supports sports it likes. As reader Bill Proudfit lightheartedly pointed out: 'Golf and tennis are sports Hong Kong government employees aspire to, while dragon boat and lion-dancing events make the Hong Kong government look good.'

But the reality is we have almost HK$50 million in unused funds when sporting events are desperate for much-needed capital. To be fair to the government, one sports event they did back - the Louis Vuitton match-racing yacht event in Victoria Harbour - was cancelled at the last minute due to circumstances beyond the control of local organisers. The event had received HK$10 million from the MEF.

It is now hoped the fifth round of applications being processed will see a number of deserving sports being given the green light. Let's hope they don't have to go through the ordeal one promoter is experiencing - he claims almost HK$1 million is still owed to him from the MEF.

Some people in government might look at the unused HK$50 million and proudly crow they have been prudent. But this money was given with the objective of helping out sports (as well as cultural and art) events that could raise the city's profile.

Con Conway, vice-president of the Hong Kong Olympic Committee, was quite acerbic when he said the government should be vilified for not getting this right. 'They have come up with a policy but have forgotten how to implement it properly. They haven't thought the MEF through,' says Conway.

Conway has no doubt about the way forward. 'It is beyond peradventure that what Hong Kong needs is a government minister for sport,' he said.

Some would argue we already have one in the form of Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing. But how come we have all sorts of initiatives involving sports but with various government departments in charge? The MEF is handled by the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, simply because the Tourism Commission falls under it. And since this is a tourism-boosting initiative, it was felt right to go down this path. A case of too many cooks being involved. And you know what happened to the broth.

No wonder there's a stink coming from the MEF.