Sense and sensibility welcome from Carrie Lam
Unlike her predecessor, the city’s leader focused her policy address on the tough problems facing Hong Kong rather than China-related items
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has shown sense and decency in focusing her new policy address on Hong Kong and the myriad tough problems it faces. This makes her rather different from her immediate predecessor.
There are a few mainland-related items, such as new subsidies to lure young local entrepreneurs to work and invest in the “Greater Bay Area” economic zone. But, she mostly kept them to a minimum.
She has introduced several substantial measures that will make life a bit easier for many people: extending maternity leave to 14 weeks; ending the so-called offsetting mechanism for the Mandatory Provident Fund reform; rationalising the fares of the three cross-harbour tunnels; launching a slew of new welfare, language and employment measures for minorities; making a policy U-turn to impose a total ban on electronic cigarettes; and introducing free cervical cancer (HPV) vaccinations for schoolgirls.
Critics have charged that she is essentially subsidising bosses to extend the current leave for expectant mothers by four weeks, and to end their practice of legally raiding the pension accounts of employees to pay for the latter’s long service and severance payments.
That’s true, but let’s not mince words. Our government has always mollycoddled the business sector. Without the new subsidies, there is no way forward.
Lam was right when she indirectly criticised the first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa for allowing the offsetting mechanism in the first place. Now we know it will cost us HK$29.3 billion over 25 years in payments to bosses. But at least we know that more than that amount will go into the pockets of ordinary workers.
If I have a complaint, it is that the plan won’t start until 2024 and the subsidy repayment formulas are too complicated. The date should be pushed forward and calculations simplified. Subsidies for extended maternity are cheaper, estimated at about HK$479 million a year, and are also less controversial.
For years, the government had failed to address chronic traffic jams in Wan Chai and Causeway Bay, largely caused by overuse of the Cross-Harbour Tunnel with its much cheaper tolls than those at the other two tunnels, especially the Western Harbour Tunnel.
The new tolls will help bring tunnels closer in line and even out traffic flow. They won’t resolve the problem of congestion overnight, though. A full solution will have to wait until the government takes back the Western tunnel when its 30-year franchise expires in 2023.