It will come as no surprise to many that the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union failed in a bid for government cash to help stage last year's Bledisloe Cup international test match between Australia and New Zealand. It is, after all, far from poor, thanks to the perennial success of the Hong Kong Sevens tournament. Nonetheless the event easily satisfied the most relevant eligibility requirements for grants from the HK$100 million Mega Events Fund, a tourism initiative set up two years ago to advance sports, arts and cultural projects. For example it was certain to have more than 10,000 spectators and participants, attract overseas visitors and boost the Hong Kong brand as an events city.
So it does come as a surprise that the rugby union was not only refused, but remains in the dark about how the eligibility criteria is applied. That adds to the question of why there is still nearly HK$50 million left in the fund less than 10 months before it expires. Sports events have received most of the money disbursed. Other recipients include the dragon and lion dance extravaganza, the well-wishing festival, the dragon boat carnival, and the international jazz festival
When the fund was launched, the chairman of its assessment committee, lawmaker Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung, made a virtue of accountability and full disclosure. This was reassuring given the Harbourfest fiasco six years before, when loose oversight led to controversy over how HK$100 million was spent on concerts to boost Hong Kong's image in the wake of Sars. He vowed to monitor the use of public money and said the assessments of all applications would be published to enhance transparency. Interestingly, he nominated the Hong Kong Sevens, Standard Chartered Marathon, Hong Kong International Film Festival and Hong Kong Arts Festival as events that could be funded - so long as the organisers added elements to them.
It seems the government, which ultimately controls the fund, does not share all of Lam's sentiments. If there were more transparency, the public would have a clearer idea why grants to promote the UBS Hong Kong Open golf tournament and the Hong Kong tennis classic effectively financed 'appearance' money paid to overseas stars to induce them to come here. We suppose it could be argued that big-name golfers and tennis players help promote Hong Kong as an events capital. Perhaps they are the 'added elements' to which Lam referred - other event organisers take note. That is not to suggest there is anything irregular about such payments - they are commonplace elsewhere but, if made from public funds and not by the sponsor, they should be disclosed.
That said, some of the events the fund supports could not continue in their present form without its help. If it is decided to extend its life in a review of its operations later this year, that should be subject to clearer guidelines and a transparent assessment process.