Six weeks into the consultation on a goods and services tax, an appeal by Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen for the public to get on with the real GST debate speaks a lot for the conundrum facing the administration. Confronted with growing pressure for it to abort the nine-month consultation, the government has no choice but to fight back, or at least be seen to be doing so. In an article published in newspapers on Thursday, Mr Tang admitted negative reaction to the GST proposal was an 'entirely understandable human reaction'. He was adamant the 'initial, negative response is driven by emotions'. 'We have no intention of curtailing or dropping our nine-month consultation,' he wrote. 'It is now time to put the slogans and rhetoric to one side, and to discuss the substance of the government's proposals. But please, let's have a calm and rational debate based on facts and figures, rather than one fuelled by fallacy and fear-mongering.' In view of the unpopularity of the proposed tax, the negative public response should come as no surprise. If Mr Tang and the administration have already revised the game plan, it is because the initial stage of the GST battle could not have gone worse. Opinion polls consistently show that most people are opposed to a GST. At least three major political parties - the Democratic Party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, and the Liberal Party - have spoken out against it. Mr Tang launched the counter-attack following a call by Liberal leader James Tien Pei-chun for the government to 'consider shelving the consultation immediately'. Mr Tien has argued the community has given a clear message: no to GST. The government's renewed pledge to go ahead with the consultation, however, looks unlikely to defuse the political pressure. When the Legislative Council resumes meeting in October, major political parties are set to seize an early opportunity to table a motion to call a halt to the consultation. Although any such motion, if passed, would be non-binding, it would put more pressure on the government. Furthermore, it would embarrass an administration that has vowed to take public opinion seriously. With the opening of the Legco session six weeks away, the government is eager to reduce the public opposition to a GST ahead of a fierce battle in the legislature. By hardening its rhetoric and intensifying the publicity drive, the government is also anxious to quash conspiracy theories about the endgame of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Speculation abounds that Mr Tsang will drop the idea of a GST when he seeks a second term as chief executive. Given there is nearly eight months to go before the consultation ends, it is inconceivable Mr Tsang has already made a decision on a GST. The government's immediate task is to get the consultation back on track. By doing so, it will help ensure the much-awaited public debate on a GST and a set of related public finance issues does not end up a lost opportunity. The administration is keen to show it has not shied away from controversial and difficult issues even at a time of uncertainty in the lead-up to the chief executive election and thereafter. Officials are determined to make the case for a GST by going back to the basics of what they call the fiscal challenge facing Hong Kong. They have urged calm and rational debate, and have dismissed the negative response as being 'driven by emotions'. Ironically, their comments smack of the slogans and rhetoric they have urged be put aside for a real, community-wide debate on the tax system. They do not help clear up doubts about whether the GST consultation, take two is a genuinely fresh attempt to put an end to the decades-long debate and not a mere damage-control exercise.