By DANA SMITH
THE Bahamas can expect a referendum on the legalisation of gambling and a national lottery before the year is out, Prime Minister Perry Christie said.
He said a referendum is necessary to remove the "contradictions" that have led to gambling continuing to be illegal, yet widely practised and accepted.
The Prime Minister was speaking to the press yesterday at the Sheraton Hotel following a Fiscal Position Seminar.
He said a great deal of work has been done in preparation for the referendum, including some work by the former Ingraham administration.
Mr Christie said: "It is something that I think is very necessary to remove these enormous contradictions that exist in our country where every single Bahamian is walking around knowing that they (illegal web-shops) exist.
"We cannot have this system... where people are paying national insurance payments, making other institutional payments and then otherwise pretending that this activity is lawful. That cannot go on any further."
Mr Christie said he is working in the Ministry of Finance on scheduling a time for the referendum. He also said the former government "has done a lot of work on that" to the point where the former government created draft legislation.
He noted all of the prior government's work is under review and the current government will provide Bahamians with an initial "framework" before actual referendum questions. He said the Ministry of Finance has already had discussions with representatives of owners of illegal web-shops.
"They had to consult to determine the feasibility of this whole exercise, the extent to which revenue can be gained from the exercise. A necessary function of officials in the Ministry of Finance is to place themselves in a position to advise the government of the Bahamas," he said. "And the former government - as I indicated - did do exploratory work in this regard and I don't know the extent to which they tracked what the Minister of Finance was doing, but I now have the opportunity to review everything."
The Prime Minister also predicted potential conflicts prior to the referendum between opponents and proponents of the legalisation, including arguments from religious organisations.
"I know the church will have a lot of say about it in opposition to some of it - all of it, and I know the proponents of it will have a lot to say. So I anticipate that there will be a process taking place leading into the referendum," Mr Christie said.
He continued: "One of the great arguments the church puts forward is the impact (on family life) but our people are obviously free today to do whatever they please to do and the reality is, they're doing it.
"To what extent, we'll find out - I don't know the extent to which. All I have said - which reflects what the two major parties said - that if elected, we would put the question to the people of the Bahamas and let the people of the Bahamas decide. That's where we are and I can assure you I am working assiduously to bring that about as quickly as possible."
When asked if Bahamians will see the referendum before the end of the year, Mr Christie answered: "Yes," before adding: "I will wish it to be so - before the end of the year. I have no date in mind and it's just a question when we are at that point."
He added if Bahamians vote against the legalisation of gambling and a national lottery, it would be "logical" to assume action will be taken against the illegal web-shops.
"The point is that if Bahamians could make a decision on what they want - if they say they want it - they have it, if they say they don't want it by a majority vote - then it won't happen and that means it will remain against the law and it will be rigidly enforced."