Tien loses revamped Lantau casino bid - Thursday 23rd of November 2006

The government has refused to even consider building a casino anywhere in Hong Kong, siding with majorities in both the functional and geographical constituencies in the Legislative Council.

The comment came as Legco Wednesday voted down a motion raised by Liberal Party leader James Tien Pei- chun calling on the government to actively study the feasibility of establishing a casino on Lantau as an alternative to a goods and services tax and to create more jobs.

Secretary for Home Affairs Patrick Ho Chi-ping said the government was greatly concerned by the problems arising from gambling and has a policy of not encouraging the activity with strict regulation of betting outlets.

"[Conducting a study on casinos on Lantau] is not in line with our aim of regulating gambling," Ho said, adding that condoning the Liberal Partys idea would "send out the wrong message."

Ho said sacrificing moral values and risking the increase of gambling-related social problems was not a gamble the government was willing to take.

He cited a report from Chicago University which suggested the establishment of casinos had a direct correlation with the increase of pathological gamblers in the same area.

Tien had earlier submitted a motion urging the government "to actively study the feasibility of establishing a leisure, gaming and entertainment complex on Lantau, and to conduct extensive consultation in this regard."

But only Tiens cohorts, as well as Abraham Shek Lai-him, whose real estate and construction constituents stood to benefit from building a complex, actively voted for the motion.

Among directly elected legislators representing the geographical constituencies, only two voted for the motion while 24 voted against.

Tien said he had expected opposition from other legislators.

"What really surprised me is the position of the administration," he said. "But of course, I shall not offend the administration too much."

In 2004, the Liberal Party made a similar proposal to then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, citing Macaus economic success as a reason to believe casinos on Lantau would help create jobs. This time, Tien updated his marketing, claiming it could be the governments way out from the impasse over the unpopular GST proposal.

He criticized the GST as taxing every Hong Kong citizen while the implementation of levies on the gambling industry would only be taxing that particular industry.

He said Macaus revenue through its betting duty was HK$17.2 billion so far this year, and he estimated it could receive as much as HK$100 billion from the gambling industry by 2016. "Thats quite a huge amount for 400,000 people with a government spending of around HK$30 billion," Tien said.

He also estimated the leisure and gaming complex would increase tourist numbers and create 20,000 new jobs.

Liberal Party vice chairwoman Selina Chow Liang Shuk-yee also warned that in five years time, the gross domestic product per capita in Macau could exceed that of Hong Kong.

A recent Liberal Party study showed 49.5 percent of the 2,500 respondents were in favor of the Lantau casino with only 33.9 percent against.

"Weve got more supporters than dissidents, so to speak," Tien said.

But apart from those affiliated with the Liberal Party, he found little support in Legco.

"Mr James Tien has only been looking from a businessmans interest," said Federick Fung Kin-kee of the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and Peoples Livelihood.

Wong Kwok-hing, of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, said:"I wont support any form of gambling."

Both the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and the Democratic Party stated they had policies against encouraging gambling.

Both parties also said there were many other ways of using Lantau to attract visitors, such as improving heritage sites and eco-tourism on the island.

Liberal Party members rallied to Tiens support, saying the complex would also provide much needed conference space.

But legislators admitted the mere mention of the word `gaming in Tiens motion made them nervous.

"I feel pretty sure its not going to happen. I certainly hope it doesnt," said Bernard Charnwut Chan, lawmaker for the insurance constituency and an Executive Council member.

Speculation over a possible leisure and gaming complex on Lantau first arose in 1999 when it was revealed Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, then financial secretary, would be visiting Las Vegas, having describe it as "the most successful convention center and tourism destination in the world."

In September 1999, then-Jockey Club chairman Alan Li Fook-sum suggested the government had been seeking views on the idea.

"I cant give further comment. All I can say is that they [the government] mentioned they would consider whether a casino was needed in Hong Kong," he said.

When Tsang completed the visit at the end of September, he said a casino in Hong Kong was possible but "really a long shot."

Even then, the mere speculation of the issue caused outrage, with Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho Hung-sun wading in, giving an insight into the thoughts of mainland authorities on the eve of Macaus handover: "Macau, after its handover, will be the only place in China where gambling is allowed," he said at the time, citing the Basic Law of both special administrative regions.

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