[政黨政治] Editorial Populism and handouts

【明報專訊】THE LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL’S (Legco’s) second reading of the Appropriation Bill resumes tomorrow, and some legislators are planning to press their demands by filibuster. Filibuster is just their method. There are serious problems unveiled by the Budget, of which one is that government spending has kept going up. The ratio of it to gross domestic product, which was 19.9% in 2012-13, will jump to 21.7% – again top the alert level (20%) – in 2013-14.

When it spends more money, the government is expected actually to take steps to promote economic growth and speed up economic restructuring, try to tackle problems with health care and education or invest in Hong Kong’s future. The government has kept saying resources are scarce and must be properly employed. However, over the past six years, John Tsang, as Financial Secretary of the last administration and this, has handed out more than $210 billion in total (including the $33 billion budgeted this year). All such handouts are one-off payments.

The percentage of elderly citizens in Hong Kong is going up, and health care and welfare spending is rocketing. However, over the past six years, John Tsang has handed out $210 billion in total instead of allocating more resources to services for the elderly so that the government can meet needs that will inevitably arise.

It is of course right for the government to provide underprivileged people with assistance they really need when the economy is in difficulty. However, Hong Kong is now in crisis because there are deep-seated contradictions that must be urgently resolved. Inflation is high, and property prices and rents are high in Hong Kong, whose economic development has hit a bottleneck. There are no new areas that may fuel economic growth. It is a palliative rather than a cure to hand out money, but society now focuses so much on handouts as to disregard long-term plans and policies. It is indeed myopic to do so.

It was generally believed that democratisation would breed populism. To get votes, politicians may recklessly make out electioneering cheques, and government spending may sharply go up as a result. However, it is quite clear from what happened in the seven years when Donald Tsang headed the government that an administration not elected by universal suffrage may be populist and wasteful of resources. The Leung administration has not been able to break with the “handing out money" pattern in the first year of its term. It is doubtless an important criterion for judging its effectiveness whether it can help citizens to kick their addiction to handouts. Furthermore, it is a concern whether populism will go from bad to worse when the chief executive (CE) is or when all the Legco members are elected by universal suffrage.

Last year, when Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying ran against each other in the CE race, the former, to boost his popularity, said elderly citizens would each get $3,000 a month if he got elected. Leung followed suit, pledging an allowance of $2,200 a month. That is why the government has begun this month to pay elderly citizens the Old Age Living Allowance (OALA). In this year’s Budget, recurrent social welfare spending is as much as $56 billion, up 30.5% on the previous year. The percentage increase tops that of any other item mainly because of the OALA, which costs the government an additional $8.3 billion. This is clear proof that a CE elected by a small circle is not immune to the handout malady. Unless this problem is squarely addressed, things will worsen in 2017, when the CE is elected by universal suffrage. The taxpayer may then have to pay even more dearly.

It is one of the legislators’ responsibilities to exercise such supervision as to prevent the administration from squandering money and the CE from recklessly making out political cheques. However, we gather that a demand some Legco members intend to press by filibuster is that the government “refund $10,000″. What high hopes can one pin on such a Legco?

明報社評 2013.04.16﹕政府開支升升升 民粹當道派糖成風非港之福









bottleneck﹕a delay in one stage of a process that makes the whole process take longer

palliative﹕an action, a decision, etc that is designed to make a difficult situation seem better without actually solving the cause of the problems

malady﹕a serious problem

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