'Mr Tang will deliver his budget speech on February 28. He has said that it is unlikely to contain any surprises.' SCMP, December 13 WELL, IT IS always said that when you want the obvious stated, look for a journalist. It has long been obvious that our Financial Secretary, Henry Tang Ying-yen, has no room for surprises. To start with, he has been scooped by his boss, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Donald was himself financial secretary for a long stretch and he was never the biggest enthusiast of his own promotion to chief secretary, a colonial post of reduced importance in post-colonial times and now relegated to his re-election campaign chief. But, although Donald now has the top job, he has not entirely been able to give up his financial secretary practices and he indulged them two months ago with a budget speech disguised as a policy address. You cannot really blame him. His predecessor as chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, steadily reduced the policy address over his tenure from a keynote speech to an occasion for stepping out to have lunch. Donald has tried to revive it by setting out his ideas on environmental and social causes. This inevitably entails spending money and raising it. Sorry, Henry, the boss comes first. You are now committed. Then there is the matter of that public consultation on broadening the tax base, the now dead goods and services tax (GST) proposal in other words. It is not officially dead. The correct wording, I believe, is that it is no longer actively to be pursued which is a way of saying that the public consultation is still to continue to its scheduled end. This means past the date of the budget speech which gives Henry little if any room that Donald has not already taken to introduce new revenue measures. He has enough egg on face from calling off GST shortly after saying that it would not be the right thing to do. If he were now to make a complete mockery of the public consultation by presuming on its findings he would certainly make himself look foolish. There are always sinners' taxes of course and he might introduce a few measures in this field by saying that they deal with social concerns rather than the public consultation's remit of whether we should widen the tax base. But he is largely blocked here too. In alcohol duties his is a personally sensitive position. He is known to have a big wine cellar and a keen nose for a good claret. Best leave alcohol alone. If he raises duties he will annoy his wine-drinking buddies. If he reduces duties people will say that he did it in his own interests. One financial secretary has already lost his job on that score. Smokers are also off limits for the time being. The new legislation banning smoking in public places goes into effect on January 1. If Henry gives smokers a tax break now, the point of the legislation is somewhat lost. Raise tobacco duties further, however, and restaurants will scream that the government has already done them a big disservice and it is simply vindictive to hit them twice in the space of less than two months. He might look at the green angle on sinners' taxes but, once again, Donald has already done it. This pretty much puts a stop to anything Henry can do on the revenue side. He will have to tweak things somewhere because that is what financial secretaries do in budgets but even the word 'cosmetic' hardly describes what he can do. Cosmetics have substance. On the expenditure side he also has little room. Having warned us that we face the danger of big cyclical deficits without a GST to smooth things out, and having then abandoned GST, he is hardly in a position to say that it doesn't matter and he will open the purse strings anyway. Of course, he might alternatively say that it is time to tighten the purse strings here and there. Again it won't wash. Leave alone that there isn't much here and there left when he has already chopped annual expenditure by almost 6 per cent since the beginning of 2005, he stands to post a budget surplus of about HK$30 billion for the present fiscal year. It does not give him much ground for further cutting. And then there is that upcoming quasi-election for chief executive next year. The boss will hardly appreciate seeing him pinch the public at election time, particularly as the election is likely to be contested on this occasion. No, I imagine Henry is scratching his head right now to come up with something that could still make him look like a real bona fide financial secretary at budget time. Surprises are just not in it. But then, as I say, when you want the obvious stated, look for a journalist. Look no further.