A recent survey of visitors to Hong Kong found that most were against the introduction of a sales tax on their purchases here. This is hardly surprising: no one likes new taxes, and tourists are no exception. A possible fall in tourist spending and other arguments will soon be trotted out against the introduction of a goods and services tax (GST). The survey's findings are just the opening salvo in what is likely to be a heated debate. The annual budget speech by Financial Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen tomorrow will likely contain little else that is controversial. Estate duties, wine duties and green taxes may be subjects of quiet speculation, but the one idea sure to affect the greatest number of people and provoke the widest discussion is the GST. Mr Tang's speech should be followed by the release of a government report on the way forward to a GST and should mark the beginning of a long-awaited consultation process. The new tax is necessary to widen and stabilise the government's revenue base, but the road to consensus will be rocky. The main political parties have withheld their support on the grounds that a tax on consumption may adversely affect the poor and small businesses, as well as complicating a simple tax regime. Businesses, many finding voice through the Coalition Against Sales Tax, fear complications and added administration costs - not to mention falling receipts. Convincing a large cross-section of groups to look beyond their own narrow interests will be the government's main task. Working out the details of implementing the tax in a timely manner will be another. Beyond the acceptability of a sales tax lie complicated negotiations over whether other taxes will be reduced at the same time and whether there will be exemptions to ease the impact on the poor. Mr Tang previously estimated it would take three years to prepare for the introduction of a GST. Assuming this includes the consultation, Hong Kong would not be ready for a sales tax until 2008 at the earliest. A delay beyond that date, perhaps accompanied by a market downturn that would reveal our enduring structural deficit, could bring us back to the days when international credit ratings agencies viewed Hong Kong with growing alarm. Mr Tang is tomorrow expected to report the first surplus in five years, while interest in land purchases for development remains strong. The government's improving fiscal picture will surely lead to calls for it to slow the pace of all kinds of reform measures, including the GST. The aim of the consultation should remain broad community support. Any new tax policy will need this in order to be both legitimate and practicable. However, shelving preparations for introducing a GST, or the consultation itself, should not be considered.