Government wisdom on spending in doubt

The Big Waster, a government-created mascot for a food-saving campaign.

Chris Yeung

Launched by the then Environment Bureau in 2013, the Food Wise Hong Kong Campaign aimed to educate the public about the value of food and therefore not to waste it has been led by The Big Waster. He/she is a mascot.

A string of news relating to the way the government spends taxpayers’ money last week saw the John Lee administration emerging as The Big Waster (money) at a time when fiscal deficit is forecast to continue at least until the 2027-28 fiscal year.

Case One: An estimated HK$4.39 billion will have to be spent on the management of 30,000 temporary flats, or light public housing, in addition to billions of dollars for construction. The new spending amounts to operating costs of around HK$1,000 per month for each unit.

Case Two: The Government splashed out a staggering HK$1.2 billion on the city’s first “patriots-only” districtcouncilelection last year, just over 90 per cent more than it spent on the 2019 district polls. A massive publicity campaign was launched to boost voter turnout. The 2023 election yielded a record-low turnout rate. Constitutional affairs officials said “such publicity work achieved a positive impact and received public recognition.”

Case three: A total of HK$20.99 million were spent on offices for four former chief executives in the 2023-24 financial year. Of them, about 44 per cent, or HK$9.17 million, went to an office for Carrie Lam at Pacific Place in Admiralty. It included HK$5.67 million for rent and HK$2.86 million in staff expenses.

The list of cases goes on. They were among the expenditure items on the 2024-25 Budget that legislators have highlighted in a long list of questions to the Government for an explanation at a series of special Financial Committee meetings.

In a broad brush, members cast doubts on whether the spending of certain items was justified. Not surprisingly, they were all rejected or dismissed by government officials.

The special Financial Committee meetings are routinely convened before the annual Budget is put to the Legislative Council for a vote by the end of April.

Despite the host of questions legislators have raised on a number of government spending items, there is no doubt the budget blueprint will be approved with an overwhelming majority by the legislature.

With its total fiscal reserves once standing at over HK$1 trillion, Hong Kong had been the envy of a lot of countries in the region and other parts of the world. It had fallen below the HK$700 billion level in just a period of several years.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in this year’s budget the revised total deficit for the current financial year is forecast to reach HK$101.6 billion.

The ballooning fiscal deficit has prompted his predecessor John Tsang to warn in a post on his Facebook last month “it is undeniable that Hong Kong has fallen into an era of structural deficit.” Tsang has urged the Government to cut costs and consider new revenue streams.

In his budget, Chan did roll out plans to cut expenditure.They include a cut on funding for non-governmental welfare organisations and subsidies on examination fees for DSE students.

Government’s justifications for cuts on expenditures on items relating to issues such as welfare and education will become more questionable when there are more revelations of alleged excessive and dubious government spendings.

The failure of the Government to give a convincing case of its principle of allocation of resources in times of belt-tightening may further erode public trust in the Government and widen the divide between the Government and the people.

Constitutionally and politically, the Legco is obliged to play a role in holding the Government accountable, in particular when it comes to the use of taxpayers’ money.

It is a testing time for them to show their determination to keep a close watch on taxpayers’ money and stop the Government from becoming a “big money waster.”

This article was first published on Green Bean Facebook.

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