Another budget, another disappointment in the making

Alice Wu braces herself for the usual post-budget disappointment, with Tsang unlikely to propose any fixes to our pressing problems

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 2:52am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 February, 2014, 2:52am

Everyone is looking towards Wednesday, when Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah is scheduled to unveil his seventh budget. Will he disappoint the middle class?

What needed to be "leaked" has been leaked. The work to "manage expectations" has been done - the man who has seen government expenditure rise by 80 per cent since the beginning of his tenure has already warned that sweeteners are soon to become "history".

This is all kind of sad, I'll admit. The government printers are ready to roll, yet some of us are still holding out hope that whatever we say now will matter.

I don't think Tsang - a self-styled member of the middle class who has nevertheless been "excommunicated" from the community - would take the idea to heart that he is the middle class' last hope. The middle class received no crumbs of comfort from Leung Chun-ying's policy address last month. Tsang, once called a "big sinner" for not spending more on public welfare initiatives, is no messianic hero.

The only time has Tsang flinched was over a proposal that the now-infamous HK$6,000 handout in the 2011 budget should initially be funnelled into our Mandatory Provident Fund accounts. That created such a bitter backlash that he ended up giving everyone the money, directly into our bank accounts.

His wildly inaccurate forecasts of the deficits and surpluses of years gone by haven't bothered him much, either.

Some have warned Tsang of the political risk of taking sweeteners back. But the scaremongering by some of an "inevitable tax hike" to pay for Leung's policy plan to help the working poor has done its work. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: with HK$1.4 trillion in reserves, it would be political suicide for anyone to suggest raising taxes. So at least we can cross that off our list of worst fears.

Here's what I think will happen: Tsang will head for the podium and read his prepared script. He will talk about the global financial situation, his take on its implications for Hong Kong, give us a few words on the cost of increasing public expenditure and the need for us to give up our taste for sweets. There will be interruptions and some will be ejected from the chamber, but there will be no major policy overhauls.

He can't take away the MPF - it's not his decision to make. He can't inject money anywhere to make our working days shorter or our bosses nicer. And he can't relieve our children of their full schedule outside school that is needed because teachers can't complete the curriculum during school hours. Tsang also can't help with most of the stuff the middle class struggles with. Post-budget we can expect the usual expressions of moral outrage.

And, after that, life goes on: the middle class will soon get those ominous green envelopes (salaries tax demand letters) and feel woozy.

The annual ritual of getting our hopes up and feeling let down afterwards is masochistic. Once more, we'll try to hang on to our sanity while clocking unpaid hours of overtime this Wednesday.

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