tycoon Packer won’t be here Without casinos - Harsha

28 April 2014 04:37 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


In an interview with the Dailymirror  United National Party (UNP) Parliamentarian and renowned Economist Dr. Harsha De Silva discussed the implications of so called mixed hotel and shopping malls project including James Packer’s project approved in Parliament last Thursday and Friday. He also highlighted the EPF issue and expressed his views regarding the recent attack on UNP MPs in Hambantota.

Q: Let’s start by discussing an issue which is drawing a lot of attention – James Packer’s Crown Resort project. The government has declared that there will be no casinos in the resort projects. So what is the problem?
Last week the government passed the gazette notifications for the so-called integrated resorts in Parliament. Now, James Packer does not invest in these large resorts unless those resorts have casinos. James Packer is one of the two biggest casino operators in the world. Now Packer’s bread-and-butter is the casino business. So last Thursday in Parliament we were told that this massive investment was coming to Sri Lanka by James Packer but he was alright with not having a casino. Is the government expecting the people to believe this? There is a saying that you can fool some people all the time, all the people some of the time but never all the people, all the time. And, we’re coming to that third point. People from all over Sri Lanka are discussing the issue and they don’t buy these falsehoods spread by the government.

The President has said that there will be no casinos in James Packer’s resort. I don’t buy that. I think the President is not telling the truth. He shouldn’t be doing that. That’s why we said that if the people of Sri Lanka are to believe the President of this country, he would have certainly included the amendment that was brought in saying there will be no casinos in this. This is not an issue of whether casinos are good or bad; that is a separate thing. I have been personally fighting for the last several years if the government decides to have casinos, then they must be regulated, they must be licensed and there must be proper taxes levied on them.

Now, the President has assured his citizens that there will be no casinos. In the meantime, what does James Packer think? He sees his casino project being passed. I have documentation which I have tabled during Thursday’s parliamentary debate – Packer’s statement to his shareholders, to whom he says he is building a casino in Colombo at their last Annual General Meeting. That is his game plan and he has given multiple interviews, even to the Forbes Asia magazine last month that he is investing in a casino in Colombo. In that case, the government and the president should be willing to square with us saying yes, they want to bring a casino.’ Then, even though we are opposed, let’s have a discussion and figure out the best way to do it without disturbing various religious, social cultural, moral aspects and with regulations, taxes and licensing.

But without admitting it, they deny the fact that there is going to be a casino. Since they have denied that casinos will be coming to the country, there is no room for any sort of public discussion about the matter.

So what is the government’s policy? Is the government’s policy to have casinos as strategic development for the next several years down the road or is it having major casino operators of the world run casino-less resorts as a strategic development project? Come on! People of the country as well as the rest of the world can see through these lies and amateurish policy-making of this country! It is a shame that we can’t articulate an acceptable, believable position and a roadmap for the future of the country.

Q:Casino or no casino, the James Packer’s gazette was passed in the parliament with only 44 votes against. What have you go to say about this?
Well, the government got all their ministers, even the ones who were overseas to come and vote in favour of the project. They expected a two-thirds majority but the government did not expect so many absentees. As the Opposition, we voted against the bill. But, the members of the government were too scared to get up and vote against it. Only Patali Champika Ranawaka and Ven. Athuruliye Rathana Thera had the backbone to do so.

Q: Isn’t this a setback for the Opposition?
It is not just a setback for the Opposition but it is a setback for the country. Economically, it is an admission that we cannot attract proper investors. We expect meaningful investments which can create jobs and open up new business opportunities. Instead, this is what we get. Certainly, this is not what is called a strategic development project. And this is not the type of industry that should be given tax breaks. You don’t need to give tax breaks to attract casinos.

As for the people, they are ruled by a dishonest government. This took Sri Lanka’s democracy to a whole new low. Furthermore, the entry of casinos will create a gateway for prostitution, money-laundering and other social ills. It is certainly a sad day for the country for more than one reason.

The government has gone against all the chief Buddhist prelates, the Catholic priests, the Islamic religious leaders and Hindu religious leaders of this country. The government might think that getting this bill passed in parliament is a victory. But in fact, it will speed up the process toward the end which has already begun.

Q: If James Packer does bring in a casino to Sri Lanka, that won’t be the first. There are already some casinos which exist in this country. So how is one more going to make a difference?
Existing casinos are illegal. There are no regulations, no monitoring and no licences on them. They are clearly breaking the law and should be shut down. However, comparatively in international standards, these casinos are small-timers. Marina Colombo is the biggest one in Colombo so far, but it doesn’t even come close to the kind of casino operations that are operated by James Packer. What Packer is planning is massive scale, international standard casinos with all “associated facilities.” Therefore, the impact of such a casino is going to be much more devastating on society. Long arm of the law will never reach this type of casino.
Furthermore this project is identified as a core industry for the development of Sri Lanka. That this type of industry is what our country’s development depends on, is a scary thought.

Q: Another topic that is receiving much attention is the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) issue where 2011 Auditor General’s report revealed that nearly Rs 11.7 billion had been lost due to investments in the stock market. What have you got to say about this issue?
The EPF authorities have still not tabled its audited accounts to the Parliament. So all the press releases the Central Bank (CB) is issuing, insinuating that what I am saying is not true, are incorrect. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) I sit on that committee to examine the EPF. I will examine the EPF, including the officials on both the CB side which is managing the EPF and on the Labour Ministry side which is administering the EPF. I have reminded the Chairman of PAC on multiple occasions to re-summon the abruptly adjourned meeting on the 6th of February 2013. That is the last time we met to examine the audited accounts of the EPF.
This is a problem of the lack of democracy in this country. This is a shining example of how people’s right to information, people’s right to ensure that their pension is managed in a professional way, has been denied to them. In democracies, the PAC and COPE are always chaired by Opposition MPs. They are never chaired by the Executive Arm, meaning the Cabinet Ministers of the government. Most countries don’t have part of the Executive represented in these committees and even if they do, they take a back bench. Today, in this country, that is not the case. So when you have a cabinet Minster chairing the committee, and it is so politicized, it is obvious why this situation has deteriorated to this level.  But I have been promised by the chairman of the PAC that he will re-summon the EPF and the Central Bank at our earliest mutual convenience so I am looking forward to that.

The issue is that what it looks like from the pieces that I can put together. It looks as if there have been massive fraud in the EPF in its stock market transactions. For instance, I will get to the bottom of this and find out how and why companies that whose price was pumped almost 10 times, and dumped on the EPF. I am not accusing anyone as yet, but it looks as if  the Central Bank EPF have participated in pump and dump deals in the stock market. I cannot yet confirm it until and unless we begin to examine the accounts of the EPF but let me tell the 2.5 million people who contribute monthly to the EPF that I will not let them down. If the EPF has participated in pump and dump deals in the stock exchange, I vow that I will bring these culprits to book and they will, immaterial of how powerful they are, have to pay back the people, if they have robbed money from them.

What the Central Bank is trying to do is to cover it up by saying that they invested so much and they made so much profit. It doesn’t matter if they made profits or losses in investing in legitimate companies and government securities. Of course, investors and fund managers can’t see through the crystal ball. They will make money, they will lose money and we are okay with that. We are not questioning them about legitimate transactions. What we are questioning them about are on what look like illegitimate transactions. In the document that appeared in the Daily Mirror on April 24, the Auditor General has asked why they invested in a particular investment company (unnamed) when that company had losses of billions year after year and even after EPF has invested money in that particular company, that year also it had losses.

Let me reiterate the fact that it seems very fishy from what the Daily Mirror had published and we will get to the bottom of this and we will deal with the issue.

Q: In the meantime, will the people lose their money?
This is a very good question because this shows what the Opposition can do for the people, being in the opposition. Because of the relentless pursuit of this matter, we have been able to change the behaviour of the EPF in the transactions in the Colombo Stock Exchange. So that is a great victory for the people. They now fear the repercussions of such investments and they know we are following them. So that itself is sufficient. The threat of getting caught in itself is a disincentive enough not to rob.  

Q: Switching topics, how do you interpret the recent attack against UNP members in Hambantota recently? What do you think were the reasons behind it?

It is a series of events that cannot be looked at in isolation whether it is the Hambantota attack on our MPs, the February 4th attack in 2011 on our MPs including myself, the Rathupaswela attack where innocent kids died, the attack on EPF protestors and whether it is the attack on fishermen where Anthony Fernando died. All these attacks are a part of a wider game-plan to restrict people’s freedom, people’s democratic rights in this quasi-military, dictatorial regime. We don’t have a democracy in this country anymore. So it is the might of the gun or the fear that has been generated in the people by the very powerful people of this country. It has also extended to the media. If not for the Lankadeepa photographer who took that amazing photograph, it would have been like this never happened. But the media also by and large has been blunted and jack-booted like everyone else in this society.

So what I have to say about the attack is that it is low, it is unacceptable, and we expect proper action to be taken. I don’t think still the so called Mayor of Hambantota has been questioned, let alone been arrested.

Q: With all the international criticism Sri Lanka has been receiving as of late, how do you view this incident playing a part in the world’s perception of Sri Lanka?
Well, it is sending the message that this is what they are really about; they don’t respect human rights, we don’t respect the rights of the duly appointed Opposition MPs to examine how the tax payers’ money is spent. Human rights don’t only mean right to life and political rights. It means economic rights. A person works hard and pays taxes and the government uses these taxes to squander and rob? That is a violation of that person’s human rights.

Q: What does the UNP plan to do in order to get justice?
Well, we have planned a series of events which we will start shortly.

Q: Finally, what are your views about the results of the recent Provincial Council Elections?
I would have been happier if we were able to increase our numbers even more. However, what we are seeing is the need for a combined opposition. Always people like to compare the numbers of the UPFA with the numbers of the UNP. If you look at UPFA it is a combination of various parties. What this election shows is a need for a grand coalition of the Opposition and a possibility – if we get it right - to topple this regime at the next elections. So in that context, I am pleased and I am pumped up. I know it can be done. I am in politics not to be in the opposition all my life; I am in politics to be in the government and to do things that are required to put this country right so that we can capitalise on the opportunities we have after the war. Therefore, I will do everything I can along with my colleagues to ensure that we can bring unity and build a wide coalition that can topple this regime. We have begun discussions and I am one hundred per cent confident that we will succeed in not only forming that grand Opposition coalition but also in defeating the President before the next Aluth Avurudda.

Pix by Pradeep Pathirana
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  • Punny Pellow Tuesday, 29 April 2014 03:32 AM

    Pac-Kerr understands only CASINOS!

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