Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah's latest budget - featuring a smaller basket of one-off relief measures than in previous years and dire warnings about a future structural deficit - is the most unpopular fiscal blueprint in more than a decade.
That was the finding of a University of Hong Kong poll of about 1,000 people, conducted hours after the speech was delivered on Wednesday. Fewer than a quarter were satisfied and 45 per cent were not - giving the budget a net satisfaction rate of minus 20 percentage points, the lowest since 2003.
In 2003, Antony Leung Kam-chung proposed rises in profits tax, salaries tax and new-vehicles tax, which led to his downfall as he had bought a new car shortly before the announcement.
Asked to rate the budget on a scale of one to 100, respondents gave it a satisfaction rating of 49.8, the lowest since the rating was introduced in 2008.
Yesterday, Chinese University political scientist Ivan Choy Chi-keung said it was unfair to judge Tsang based on the ratings.
"The people expect that when the economy is good, the government should share its [surplus, and] when the economy is bad, the government should relieve the people's difficulties," Choy said. "It isn't healthy … Tsang is trying to turn this around, and it's going to be painful."
Members of the public expressed their dissatisfaction to Tsang in a radio phone-in.
One caller, a mother of three, said he had not done enough for the middle class - raising the tax allowance for those with dependent parents by a "meagre" HK$2,000 to HK$40,000.
"We have to strike a balance as we review tax allowances every year," Tsang said. "The tax allowance for those with dependent parents has been raised a few times in recent years."
At a Legislative Council meeting yesterday, lawmakers also questioned Tsang on how the "future fund" for infrastructure projects - outlined in his speech - would be used. Designed to pay for infrastructure in years of budget deficits, it would comprise the Land Fund, which has HK$219.7 billion in land revenue, and a portion of future surpluses.
Labour Party lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan doubted the need for more infrastructure with an ageing population. "This government would rather spend its money on bricks instead of the people," the pan-democrat said.
But Tsang said infrastructure projects such as hospitals and old people's homes were a way to prepare for an ageing population.
The financial secretary apologised to lawmakers - though not for his budget's meagre relief measures, but for his "boring" speech that sent many to sleep and led at least one to seek alternative entertainment.
"I found out from today's newspapers that a lot of colleagues fell asleep … I am sorry if the budget was too boring," Tsang said, responding to a taunt by Beijing-loyalist Chan Kam-lam, aimed at Democratic Party veteran Albert Ho Chun-yan. Ho was seen looking at photos of bikini-clad models on his tablet computer during the speech.
Chan, of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, asked Tsang: "Next time when you reduce the amount of sweeteners, would you also consider adding some salt?" He was referring to a Cantonese slang word for obscenity.
Earlier yesterday, Tsang compared his relationship with the chief executive with his own marriage, in his latest attempt to brush aside speculation that he was at odds with his boss.
Tsang suggested that just as he and his wife agreed on barely half the matters they discussed, it was impossible for officials to agree with each other all the time.
"We work in the same government, and we don't agree 100 per cent on many things," Tsang said. "I spend more time with Leung than with my wife every day."