If a private-sector company’s managing director told his board he was expecting a loss of $25.2 million and then turned in a profit of $71.3 million, he would be considered absurdly lucky and probably incompetent, but certainly not clever, and he would possibly hurl himself from the 20th floor in disgrace. If a weather forecaster predicted a temperature of minus 25.2 and we ended up with a balmy 71.3 degrees in the shade, he would probably drown himself in the nearest rain gauge. But if you are John Tsang, Financial Secretary of the Big Lychee, and you anticipate a deficit of HK$25.2 billion before finding yourself sitting on HK$96.3 billion more than that, they give you a Grand Bauhinia Medal, which goes largely unremarked because drooling casino king Stanley Ho and all-purpose government flunkey Ronald Arculli get one at the same time.
As if such a magnitude of miscalculation were not enough – and it’s not like this is the first time – Tsang then presents a budget almost identical to the last one, and the one before, and the one before, etc in its sheer pointlessness. There is a phase a particular type of child goes through in which the brat performs a 30%-amusing, 70%-irritating act, is told not to do it again, and then repeats the process over and over, long after the entertainment value has been exhausted. The Donald/John Tsang habit of handing out the same ‘one-off’ sweeties to each identifiable group year after year has similarly grown beyond tiresome. Someone needs to be dragged into a corner by the ear and given a sound spanking.
They have been told before, over and over, that subsidizing people’s electricity bills encourages waste (from which two power monopolies profit), that raising tax allowances for people with dependents helps only those rich enough to pay tax, that waiving property rates just gives landlords a chance to jack rents up by the same amount, that topping up everyone’s Mandatory Provident Fund account is banal (unless you’re a bank getting a slice of the HK$24 billion in fund management fees). And yet off they go and do it again, with big smug grins on their faces as if they’re being clever. (In order to make sense of the official press release, read ‘intellectually bankrupt’ for ‘comprehensive’, ‘dim-witted’ for ‘thorough’ and ‘autism’ for ‘prudence’.)
The Sing Tao/Standard weirdly presents the budget as a slap in the face for the middle class, quoting a couple called Kwok with a monthly income of HK$80,000, of which 10,000 goes on the little princesses’ ballet classes, who can now hardly afford to go the movies. This is presumably an attempt by the pro-government papers to divert readers’ anger away from the budget’s utter obtuseness.
Buried among the blather in John Tsang’s speech to the Legislative Council yesterday is a curious section on increasing land supply. The government will give HK$300 million to the Development Bureau to “initiate public discussion about the feasibility of … new options [for land supply] by carrying out relevant studies and public engagement exercises in the next few years.” The main idea here is the use of ‘rock caverns’, essentially commercial and public space built underground and in hillsides. Like the subterranean malls in Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere.
You can initiate a lot of public discussion with HK$300 million, especially if you give yourself ‘the next few years’ to do it in. Why not just get the hell on with it and start digging? One possible reason is that it is not really economically viable; the shortage of land in Hong Kong is partly artificially created by the government in the first place, and it would be cheaper just to let people use old factory space than to solve the non-problem by carving giant caves out of granite. Also, unless I am mistaken, the igneous interior is one of the few things in our city not cornered by Li Ka-shing and the other property moguls.
A couple of years ago, young administrative officers were up at midnight dragging tycoon-legislators out of bed to get them down to the Legislative Council to vote through the government’s budget. That’s how close our ‘executive-led’ administration, complete with rigged legislature, came to having its spending plans thrown back in its face.
Will our lawmakers, now even more cantankerous, be any more supportive this time of yet another reform-ducking, short-term, opportunistic excuse for a budget? Ultimately, Beijing has a nuclear option: under Article 52 of the Basic Law, rejection of a budget leads to dissolution of the legislature first time round and, if repeated, resignation of the Chief Executive. But faced with this pointless heap of fiscal tripe yet again, and elections next year, even the most loyal legislators will delight in making this lame-duck and apparently brain-dead leadership sweat.