The fuss over Carrie Lam’s fiscal balance comment obscures the real issue of our public finances

It’s time to ask what the government will do with the trillions of dollars of our money it’s sitting on, and why it has misused it so far

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 1:59am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 August, 2016, 6:02pm

Will she or won’t she? After Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was quoted – or misquoted, as she now claims – as questioning the sacred cow of fiscal balance as dictated by the Basic Law, everyone wants to know if she is aiming for the top job.

Now, I wish someone would ask her a different question: if she was misquoted by a newspaper, what does she really think about the HK$800 billion surplus?

Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam seeks to quash speculation she wants top job

Since the 1997 handover, we have been or are fighting over the Basic Law’s Article 1, on Hong Kong being an inalienable part of China; Article 22 about non-interference by the central government and other mainland governing bodies in Hong Kong’s affairs; Article 23 on treason, secession, sedition, subversion; Articles 45 and 68 and the two annexes on reforming the elections of the chief executive and lawmakers. Isn’t it long overdue to debate, nay to fight over, public finances under Article 107, that is, the government’s handling of our money – the trillions that ultimately belong to you and me? For the blind accumulation of surpluses and periodic giveaways are not prudent financial management but a sign of cluelessness and intellectual poverty.

So whoever ends up running for chief executive next year, I would demand to know what their stances are on Article 107, which states the government should not spend more than it earns, and other articles relating to public finance.

“What does it mean [to keep] expenditure within the limits of revenues?” Lam was quoted as saying by Ming Pao. “When you have a lot of money – when you have a surplus of HK$800 billion – then you should utilise it.”

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Maybe she was misquoted; maybe not. But that’s an excellent starting point to question whoever wants to be the next chief executive: what does he or she want to do with our massive surpluses? Lam was probably quoting our current fiscal surplus. Our consolidated government reserves are more like HK$1.57 trillion, with another HK$3 trillion under the Exchange Fund.

If the post-handover government had not been so stingy; if it had worked more wisely in providing better housing and job opportunities for the young; in improving people’s livelihoods and quality of life; and if it had not pursued socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor, we may not be in such a mess today.