Hopes for land, fiscal prudence fall flat

Editorial | Mary Ma 11 Oct 2018

It was wise of the administration to avoid raising public expectations ahead of yesterday's policy address, in view of what Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor wound up saying in her second major policy statement.

Otherwise, the public would have been bitterly disappointed.

Executive Council member Ronny Tong Ka-wah heaped praise on Lam's address as a masterpiece, saying it came complete with ideas for what Hong Kong may become in 20 or 30 years. But quite to the contrary, it really wasn't a policy address to feel good about.

Despite my calling on the government earlier not to give the public false hopes if it didn't think it could live up to higher expectations, I still couldn't help feeling bitter over the pervading sense of a lack of ability in a document that took Lam less than 40 minutes to summarize.

The chief executive said she's going to reclaim 1,700 hectares off eastern Lantau - under a plan known as "Lantau Tomorrow Vision" - to provide homes for 1.1 million people and create 340,000 jobs. However, the problem is that reclamation work isn't expected to start until 2025, which is seven years from now, and the first homes won't be available until 2032 - another seven years longer.

And that's the most optimistic projection - it's virtually a given that the timetable will be pushed back due to delays of this or that.

So by the time a new town rises from the sea, people now in their prime of life will have become senior citizens. Lam's plan is too visionary to be taken seriously.

She also mentioned brownfields, but all she promised to do is speed up studies to turn brownfields in the New Territories into housing. Therefore, there will continue to be "studies," which isn't exactly the same as taking action.

If it's a speech of vision as ballyhooed by Tong, it was more like an admission that there's nothing extra the government could do to bring down home prices. Perhaps Lam and her cabinet members are expecting the uncertainty caused by the escalating trade war between China and the United States to unleash a major correction in the property sector.

If that were the case, the housing crisis would be solved through natural market forces. But then, if that was the fear, one would expect to smell at least a controlled sense of crisis in the wordy policy address. There's hardly any such sense.

The economic threat can't be ignored. US President Donald Trump - frustrated that Beijing doesn't kowtow to him - is going all out to double down on tariffs for all Chinese goods. How much will that affect Hong Kong's growth?

What has stood out in the policy address is spending. The government has money, and so it will pay bosses in exchange for their support in giving workers longer maternity leave and rewriting the mandatory provident fund legislation in favor of workers; paying tunnel operators so they will charge harbor-crossing private cars lower tolls; and offer free housing to elderly public housing tenants if they downsize to smaller units.

Alarmingly, the administration is resorting to spending big to buy its way out. However, the price for all these is fiscal prudence.

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