When Financial Secretary John Tsang recently penned the immortal words, “he milked cows, probably many cows,” he seemed on the face of it to be engaging in a fascinating attempt to find new, hitherto unimagined uses for Glen Miller’s birthday. However, could his tormented subconscious in fact have been talking about himself?
If I had been given the task of managing the creation and delivery of the 2011-12 Budget, and I secretly wanted to make the government look like incompetent idiots, I would have asked Tsang to follow this script:
Early 2010 Warn that the government is likely to see a HK$25 billion deficit for 2010.
Late 2010 Proclaim through speeches, wacky TV commercials and glossy booklets that you are commencing an important public consultation on the February budget and want to obtain people’s views on what should be in it.
Late 2010-Early 2011 Receive numerous proposals, like: use some of the government’s excess fiscal reserves to phase out old buses to help clean the air; reform the tax system to produce less volatile and more predictable revenue streams; improve health care provision; consider a better pension system for the elderly.
10 seconds later Chuck the whole lot in the bin unread, being a Hong Kong Civil Servant, and therefore far too intelligent and wise to have to care what the rabble might think.
Next day Declare that the government is now expecting a HK$71 billion surplus – a deviation of a mere HK$96 billion from the forecast amount.
Feb 23 2011 Deliver a budget with the same lame and tired one-off handouts, cynically calculated to make various sectors love the government for its generosity, with much of it going into inaccessible retirement accounts; stash the rest of the surplus away on spurious grounds about not encouraging inflation.
Feb 24-27 2011 Act all uppity when people complain about yet another budget that ignores long-term problems; ‘Tsang stands firm on budget’.
Next day Panic when even some pro-government lawmakers (though not the strictly loyal Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of HK) threaten not to vote for the budget.
Mar 1 2011 Announce that you will change your mind, “to benefit … those currently not being given anything” (as a trendy teacher awarding prizes to everyone in the class to boost kids’ self-esteem might have put it).
Mar 2 2011 Announce a range of concessions and U-turns that shower the whole surplus on the public, including a double handout of HK$12,000 in cash and tax rebates for those who least need it. Put on a brave face as colleagues, friendly media and even Beijing wet themselves about political hooliganism in the hope of diverting attention from the fact that you have made yourself look like a total ass.
This coming weekend Imagine the anguish you or your successors will have trying to wean Hongkongers off their annual HK$6,000 (-plus) handout in future. Draft a resignation speech apologizing for wasting so much of Hong Kong’s time, space and oxygen. Mention that for years now, Financial Secretaries have made wildly wrong budget forecasts, blamed the fiscal system’s reliance on land-based revenues and yet done nothing about it. Say that this is your key failure. Go on to say that, as a result, the government has been mindlessly sucking money out of the economy as if its aim were to make a commercial profit, while ignoring the city’s long-term social, environmental and economic needs. Admit that the short-term ‘hand-out’ mentality of the budget-making process is evidence of a bankrupt political system in which the leadership has no guiding principles or long-term vision. Make a plea for sympathy by pointing out that this is the way Beijing seems to want it. Taking a sip of jasmine tea, add a wry comment about the number of times – going back to Tung Chee-hwa – the people have pushed the ‘executive-led’ government around. Vanish from public sight and retire to whatever Canadian suburb your kids live in.