Hong Kong's last governor, Chris Patten, once said that the policy address was 'one of the more pleasant rituals of Hong Kong politics'. Today, it is almost painful for everyone involved. As expected, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's address drew groans of discontent from the public. There were no handouts, fresh ideas or immediate solutions to our problems. But the policy address revealed more than meets the eye; it also showed up the harsh realities.
While Tsang may have resorted to crowd-pleasing giveaways when times got rough and his popularity hit the floor, he didn't choose the easy way out this time. Though sweeteners can placate a certain degree of social discontent, they are a double-edged sword. Like drugs, they are addictive and, in exchange for support, they harm both the government and the community.
The main problem - of diminishing returns - is that, over time, no amount of treats can suffice as they inevitably become entitlements. Having already spent HK$87.6 billion in handouts since early last year, the harsh reality is that the government can no longer afford a spending spree that cannot possibly be sustained.
Simple, short-term relief measures, by definition, cannot resolve the complex issues of unemployment, poverty, the wealth-gap and a vast array of other problems. It would be naive to believe that politicians who make the connection are dense; it is the oldest trick in the book - gaining political capital without paying for it.
Concessions paid out year after year carry a heavy price. For a city heavily dependant since our colonial days on income from land sales, governments past and present have paid for the sweeteners by ignoring calls for heritage conservation and environmental preservation. Tsang's decision to finally do the right thing with regard to the already overdeveloped Central district indicates that his administration has finally come to terms with the fact that 'you can't have your cake and eat it too'.
Conservation, with conviction, can be sustainable and the government should be praised - not slammed - for its first step in foregoing land premium revenue. Tsang also avoided his usual practice of grandstanding, which may be the most surprising element of this year's policy address. Policy addresses often have been used to roll out grandiose visions for the city that fail to resonate with the community.
Former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa's vision of building 85,000 affordable homes didn't exactly bring down the house, nor did his fancy 'ports' (Cyberport, Chinese medicine port, and so on). Tsang's once-envisioned leadership by strong governance didn't do so well, either. An increasingly hard-to-please crowd has effectively turned the policy address into a what's-in-it-for-me event and a political slugfest, leaving little room for policies to be addressed.
Instead of continuing on the path of outshining his predecessor or even outdoing his addresses of previous years, Tsang seems comfortable with the fact that the work of the chief executive isn't necessarily about flexing political muscles or impressing others.
Many may have found this year's policy address lacklustre, but it covered the widest range of issues since the handover. Boring but important real-life issues like lowering carbon emissions, managing waste and the 30 paragraphs devoted to prioritising quality of life do matter. Real progress is more often a cumulation of small steps in the right direction. One may disagree with Tsang's choices of the six pillar industries to reinvent our economy, but they have far more substance than the years of empty rhetoric on the need for building on our economic strengths.
The policy address is by no means perfect; more should have been devoted to the monster issues of constitutional reform, competition legislation, minimum wage and health care reform. Given that Tsang is faced with an increasingly hostile legislature, focusing on the less controversial issues may be more politically practical and productive.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA