Why govt can't afford to drop the ball on livelihood issues

January 18, 2019 11:27
Facing opposition over changes to an elderly social welfare benefits scheme, the Hong Kong government should get the message that it can’t take the support of the pro-establishment lawmakers for granted on each and every policy proposal. Photo: HKEJ

On Thursday, the Legislative Council passed a non-binding motion moved by a pan-democratic lawmaker demanding that the government shelve its decision to raise the age threshold for elderly Comprehensive Social Security Assistance (CSSA) Scheme benefits from 60 to 65.

What was unusual about the development was that the pan-dems and the pro-Beijing camp found themselves on the same side, railing against the government proposal.

For years, the pro-establishment camp had been giving people the impression of being a steadfast “cheerleader” for the government that would always vote “yes” to whatever the administration tables in the legislature.

So why is it going against the government, and siding with the opposition, on the elderly CSSA issue this time?

The answer, in fact, is quite simple: the pro-establishment camp doesn’t necessarily have to toe the government line on every issue as long as it doesn’t involve any ideologically political stance.

Especially, when a particular policy issue concerns people’s livelihoods, the wishes of voters, rather than those of the government, are often a bigger concern for the pro-establishment camp. 

The camp will do what it can to prevent erosion in its support base or alienate potential voters, taking guard when the administration cannot handle an issue well, like when the chief executive or senior officials make unwelcome remarks.

We should bear in mind that there is no such thing as the ruling party in Hong Kong under the existing political system, with both the chief executive and the principal officials banned from having connection to any political party.

As such, the government virtually has to fight for each and every vote in order to secure the passage of its bills and resolutions in Legco. The support of the pro-establishment camp for the government’s policy initiatives is not so much out of obligation as for political expediency, but it also depends on what issues are at stake.

As a last-ditch attempt to prevent the new elderly social welfare payments plan from falling flat, Chief Executive Carrie Lam invited members of the pro-establishment camp to a meeting Thursday evening.

It is understood that during the meeting, Lam put forward a compromise proposal, under which citizens aged between 60 and 64 would be entitled to a HK$1,030 monthly cash allowance as long as they can prove that they are unfit for work, or that they have failed to find any job over a long period of time.

As the chief executive only invited members of the pro-establishment camp but not all lawmakers to discuss the matter, it suggests that the government is well aware that it can’t afford to take the pro-Beijing camp’s support for granted on people's livelihood issues.

If anything, whenever the pro-Beijing camp refuses to cooperate with the administration on a policy initiative, what it highlights is that the government has done a poor job in its lobbying effort, and also failed to gauge public sentiment properly.

Also, authorities should get the message that livelihood issues, if mishandled, can take a big toll on the administration’s governing authority and credibility, as do political disputes.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan 18

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal