On July 7, Matsu residents took a huge gamble by approving a casino resort in a referendum in exchange for an airport expansion project. The approval will accelerate the Cabinet’s completion of a draft gambling bill. However, once the draft is submitted to the legislature, pro-gambling legislators might change it to also lift the ban on gambling on Taiwan proper. If another city or county were to approve gambling in a referendum, Matsu’s dream of an upgraded airport might go up in smoke, and Taiwan’s future will be on the gambling table.
Three years ago, voters in Penghu County rejected a gambling referendum that pro-gambling and then-Non-Partisan Solidarity Union (NPSU) legislator Lin Pin-kuan (林炳坤) had been pushing for more than a decade. Voters vetoed the referendum because the pro-gambling camp had underestimated the power of anti-gambling activists and neglected the need for complementary legal measures. This time around, the situation was the opposite. Local anti-gambling activists were overconfident and underestimated their opponent. It was only a few months ahead of the vote that high school and college students took a brave stand against gambling, and the truth about how casinos have destroyed the local economy in other countries was not disseminated to all residents.
Pro-gambling activists made public statements to the effect that although a casino does not guarantee economic development, it offers an opportunity that residents must seize. Moreover, Lienchiang County Commissioner Yang Sui-sheng (楊綏生) and Weidner Resort Development signed four major assurances, among which the most anticipated was an international airport. This empty promise completely violates common sense, but by linking it to local transportation problems, which frequently bother local residents, it has become one of the main appeals of the casino resort.
Transportation is a public investment that is the government’s responsibility, and it is unthinkable that the government should shift responsibility to a business conglomerate like this. The previously proposed trimaran ferry could cut transportation time by half, to about four hours. Both the NT$1.4 billion (US$46.75 million) budgeted for building the ferry by the Cabinet in 2009 or Yang’s plan to buy a ferry for NT$2.8 billion are more feasible than the airport expansion project, which will cost tens of billions of New Taiwan dollars. The ferry solution would also have a much smaller environmental impact than an airport expansion.
President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has said that consideration should be given to the question of whether there would be enough tourists to support an international airport, but there has been no sign of any assessment of the social effects. Resolving the dispute between the national and local government by resorting to a referendum is just one more sign of the government’s incompetence.
The fact that many Matsu residents would rather put their trust in gamblers than in the government is an insult to a democratic government. Despite its long-term control of Matsu, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) is still unable to propose a correct and feasible development strategy. Instead, it chooses to rely on a corporation establishing a casino resort that might attract corrupt Chinese officials who want to launder money.