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Elderly care and the M&M test: How pro-gov’t lawmakers voted for the budget without reading it

There was once a mini-scandal in the rock music world over the unreasonable demands that some bands were making of promoters. A shining example, it was believed, was provided by the band Van Halen, who stipulated that there should be a bowl of M&Ms in the dressing room, with all the brown ones removed.

The lead singer eventually explained that this was not a case of people making unreasonable demands because they could get away with it. The band was neither addicted to M&Ms nor allergic to chocolate. The stipulation had a practical purpose.

Van Halen

Van Halen. Photo: Wikicommons.

The band’s requirements for concerts ran to many pages, mostly concerning technical matters involved in the provision of sound and lighting. These were at the outer edge of what most venues could provide in those days.

The purpose of the bowl of candies was to provide a signal. If the bowl was on the table, and on examination contained no brown M&Ms, then the band’s requirements had been read and attended to in detail. If there were brown ones, or worse no bowl at all, then a complete technical check was called for.

I was reminded of this by our current mini-scandal over the government’s decision to change the age at which social welfare recipients qualify for the old people’s scale – which is worth another HK$1,000 or so a month – from 60 to 65.

The government’s justification for this did not seem terribly impressive. No doubt the population is increasing in its average age, but that does not make life any easier for poor people in their 60s.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam. Photo: inmediahk.net.

The fact that some 40-odd per cent of the people in this age group are still working is hardly to the government’s credit. I imagine a rather similar percentage of the 65-70 group are working too. Indeed, so inadequate is provision for the elderly poor that many go on after that.

What reminded me of the old M&Ms story was the embarrassing discovery that the legislature had overwhelmingly approved of this new measure, because it was in the last budget.

The chief executive, Carrie Lam, said she was surprised that members had apparently voted for the budget without noticing this item. Unaccustomed as I am to agreeing with Ms Lam about anything, I also think this is surprising.

Clearly, most of the legislators who voted for the budget had not troubled to read it first. There are brown M&Ms present. Check the Powerpoints.

The democrats, in this case, are off the hook. Most of them voted against the budget. If you are so opposed to one part of it that you are going to vote against the whole thing then there is perhaps no point in reading the rest.

There can be no such excuse for the pro-government group, who all voted for the budget and might reasonably be expected to have familiarised themselves with its contents.

One of the DAB crew, united yes-men on the budget as on many other issues, complained that the budget was 600 pages long. Members could not be expected to find items “buried” in it.

Well, one wonders, what do they think they are paid for. Being a legislator is not just a matter of improving your c.v., decorating your business card, getting free parking in Central and being able to put “the honourable” in front of your name.

LEGCO sticker

File photo: inmediahk.net

There is actually supposed to be some work involved. Legislators are supposed to scrutinise the work of the government, with particular reference to spending and new legislation. Members of the pro-government camp may feel that this should be done in a supportive way, with constructive suggestions in public and criticisms, if any, in private. No doubt this is also the wish of the Liaison Office, to which they report, and possibly also of their electors.

But monitoring in a supportive way is no justification for not monitoring at all. Legislators are lavishly paid. They are provided with offices, assistants, clerical staff and copious supplies of free coffee. This should enable them to make sense of the acres of official prose which come their way.

It is not, actually, necessary for them all to read every word of the verbal tsunami with which they are soaked.

In the first place, some of the stuff can be ignored. There are two choke points where all the government’s plans and projects, dreams and fantasies, emerge into the light of day. These are the policy speech and the budget. In both cases, legislators have weeks to study the admittedly large volume of information supplied before they vote on it. This time should be used.

Groups of like-minded individuals like the DAB squad can also economise by dividing the work among themselves. Let the social welfare specialist study the social welfare bit, the transport specialist study the transport part, and so on. Unlike your essentially solitary functional constituency member, a party can organise, divide the work, and delegate the routine stuff to political assistants.

The government has an obligation to tell legislators what it is doing. It does not have an obligation to flag for their benefit items to which they may have an objection.

Still, the fact that our pro-government legislators are either idle or stupid is bad for the territory’s reputation and I think the government should wake them up a bit.

For next year’s budget, I suggest a hint that somewhere in the document will be a proposal to cut legislators’ salaries by half. I expect this to ensure that they will at least read the whole thing. Whether they can pick out the chocolates is up to them.

Correction 23/1: A previous version of this op-ed claimed Van Halen objected to chocolate M&Ms. In fact, all M&Ms contain chocolate – the band actually requested that brown M&Ms be removed.

Elderly care and the M&M test: How pro-gov't lawmakers voted for the budget without reading it