A special task force of public servants set up to drive the progress of Japan’s casino policy might have to be disbanded, further complicating and possibly further delaying the process, a Japanese source with direct knowledge of the situation told GGRAsia.
“That could happen, should the congressional discussion of the IR [Integrated Resorts] Bill not be concluded at this ordinary session of the Diet,” said the person, referring to the first of an expected two sessions of Japan’s parliament held during 2015. That current parliamentary session runs from January 26 to June 24.
“One of the concerns is that it is rather difficult to keep hold of central government officers at the Cabinet Office who are working on the IR Bill…as there is no basis for them to stay without the relevant law being passed,” the Japanese source added.
The country’s government announced in July last year plans to set up a body to speed the process of opening the first casino resorts in Japan. Then it was hoped it might be possible to launch one or more in time for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Since then the process has become bogged down by factors including a snap general election that was held in December.
Party politics notwithstanding, officials from various state agencies had also been expected to work together on a second piece of casino legislation – covering administrative and regulatory issues – following the passage of the IR Bill, which is the enabling statute.
But in February, GGRAsia reported that Japan’s Cabinet and Cabinet Secretariat appeared to be distancing public officials and elected politicians from direct involvement in even the preparatory work for the casino resort policy.
GGRAsia’s source suggests that the enabling bill for casinos in Japan is not guaranteed passage even during the country’s so-called extraordinary parliamentary session expected to start this autumn.
On Wednesday, Reuters news agency reported that parliamentary supporters of the casinos proposal in the governing party were hoping to get the enabling bill passed during the current session via a parliamentary committee that normally handles more mundane matters.
Reuters said some members of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are aiming to resubmit the IR Bill to the Committee on Land and Transport. The parliamentary body is said to deal typically with issues such as the removal of unsightly utility poles in favour of underground cables, but reportedly has space in its diary to look at the IR Bill.
“As long as the ruling coalition can agree and win support, it doesn’t matter which committee it’s submitted to,” LDP lawmaker Takeshi Iwaya told Reuters.
But the momentum for liberalisation – and the optimism seen last year among international investors – appears to have been lost. One factor is said to be Japanese domestic politics.
“Because of time constraints…caused by the upcoming general election of local assemblies…and discussion of higher priority issues such as national security and the current dispute on political fund contributions, it is not easy to pass the IR Bill in this ordinary [parliamentary] session,” the Japanese source told GGRAsia.
“Another possibility is to pass it in the coming extraordinary session this fall but it certainly incurs concerns for the foreign operators for the additional delay and uncertainty,” added the person.
Casino operators and developers including Macau gaming investors MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands Corp have said they would be willing to invest billions of U.S. dollars per casino resort in Japan. Some investment analysts have suggested Japan could become second only to Macau in terms of annual gross gaming revenue.
Bill Hornbuckle, president of MGM Resorts International, in November told GGRAsia that his company was still following the IR Bill process in Japan, but that would-be investors could not wait forever.
“If we get to the same point next year and there’s no progress, that might be a different story,” he explained.
Mr Hornbuckle made a presentation at an investor forum in Tokyo on February 26, challenging some negative views of the regulated casino industry commonly expressed by opponents, and highlighting what his company said are the positive community benefits of casino resorts.
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Lionel Leong Vai Tac
Macau’s Secretary for Economy and Finance