All talk, no action: The pro-establishment camp puts government loyalty ahead of elderly constituents

A controversial policy to raise the age limit for elderly welfare payments from 60 to 65 has frayed the relationship between pro-democracy and pro-establishment lawmakers and Chief Executive Mrs Carrie Lam. Despite the rhetoric, however, few expect that the pro-establishment camp and the government will break ties over this controversial policy.

The government announced the new age limit on January 7 and set it to take effect on February 1. Both pro-establishment and pro-democracy lawmakers have fiercely opposed it.

Once the policy is effective, people between the ages of 60 and 64 will not be able to apply for subsidies that pay 30 percent more than their current ones.

Both sides have bashed the government for implementing the policy without consultation.

Read the fine print. Or just read anything.

Responding to a question at LegCo on January 10, Mrs Lam said she was “surprised” to see strong opposition from lawmakers.

“You all approved the Appropriation Bill 2018, which included the proposal of raising the age limit for elderly welfare payments to 65,” she said.

The Appropriation Bill passed in May 2018, with 48 votes in favour, 11 against and eight abstentions. It was only the second time since 2008 that the government secured more than 40 votes for the budget. All pro-establishment lawmakers voted in favour.

But green-lighting this controversial policy seems to be another matter.

The government’s annual budget is a bundle deal. Once approved it covers myriad plans. It is difficult to vote against it just for one controversial plan. And if the budget is not approved the government may eventually shut down due to lack of funding.

“Mrs Lam twisted the lawmakers’ approval of the motion of thanks for the budget as the approval of this policy to raise the age limit for elderly welfare payment to 65,” said Mr Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of the Department of Applied Social Sciences at PolyU, in a commentary.

“She dragged the lawmakers into this controversy and created excuses for the government,” he said.

Pro-establishment lawmakers now say they will review the government paper “word by word” next month, when financial chief Mr Paul Chan Mo-po submits the 2019/20 budget to the LegCo.

All talk, no action

But Ms Starry Lee, the whip of the largest pro-establishment party DAB, made clear that the party will not vote against the budget just for one measure.

With the stance set, it seems unlikely that pro-establishment lawmakers could vote no.

“If there are measures that are unacceptable in the Appropriation Bill, we will need to see how unacceptable they are,” says Ms Eunice Yung from the pro-government New People’s Party.

Mr Bruce Lui, senior lecturer of Department of Journalism at Baptist University, believes this will remain largely the case.

“The government and the pro-establishment camp are working closely. Pro-Beijing lawmakers will continue to be a rubber stamp to pass the government’s plans as long as their voters are not affected,” he says.

“And this time, the backlash reflects that the pro-establishment camp was not careful enough in their lobbying to the government. Usually, they negotiate with the government to take out policies unfavourable to their voters in exchange for their loyalty,” Mr Lui explains. “Their negligence is to blame this time.”

To please voters, Mr Lui expects the camp to work with the government to come up with remedies, as the current situation is not helping them in the upcoming election.

Traditionally, the elderly are a big source of votes for the pro-establishment camp.

Suck it up, suckers

Despite fierce backlash from lawmakers, the government has shown no intention to put this policy on hold.

Mr Law Chi-kwong, Secretary for Labour and Welfare, says revoking or reversing this policy is “impossible”, pointing to the ageing population in Hong Kong.