About 400,000 of the city's poorest elderly face missing out for a month on a new special old-age allowance of HK$2,200 because the government and lawmakers have failed to narrow differences that stand in the way of funding approval. The elderly will have to make do for another month with the existing HK$1,090 a month allowance, eking out the necessities of life lest they run out of money. Lawmakers and officials can comfort themselves with the assurance that at least the elderly will not have to worry about relief from suffocating heat or freezing cold this time of year. But the inaction does not reflect much empathy with those whom the new allowance is intended to help.
That is not to say the issues behind this stand-off are unimportant. They are whether there should be a means test to qualify for the higher allowance or whether the one proposed should be raised from earnings of less than HK$6,660 and assets of less then HK$186,000. Radical pan-democrats want the test scrapped altogether, meaning the wealthy could collect it. The Beijing loyalist Federation of Trade Unions and the Democratic Party want those over 70 to be exempted, as they are now for the lower allowance. And others want the means test relaxed. But Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying is standing firm. Meanwhile, the objective of helping the neediest is stalled.
The argument about the new allowance has been going on since July, when Leung unveiled the proposal. The government billed Tuesday's meeting of Legco's Finance Committee as the last chance to approve funding if the allowance was to be backdated to October 1. Now debate is set to resume in two weeks unless the government seeks to bring it forward.
Politics is the art of compromise. It is past time for all sides to show their skills at it. Radical pan-democrats want the means test raised or scrapped because, ultimately, they want a universal retirement support scheme. Leung has promised to study it, but the issue is to be referred to a working group under a revived poverty commission, where it could remain for years, so controversial is the topic. Leung could take control of it and set a deadline. He could propose a review mechanism for the means test. But he should not abandon it without exposing the government to an open-ended commitment which misdirects resources that should be targeted at those most in need. Critics need to strike a balance between their political agenda and the interests of those they represent who are most in need.