EDITOR, The Tribune.
No matter what, by the time I finish writing this and make it public, the details would likely have changed yet again, so please take this writing as a snapshot taken at a particular point in time in the evolution of a political creature. This creature is the referendum on a National Lottery and gambling in The Bahamas promised in speeches and the Progressive Liberal Party’s Charter for Governance promised before the May 7, 2012 general election to be brought to the Bahamian people.
The belief of many Bahamians that they would be given an opportunity to vote for their choice on gambling and lotteries was short lived as not long after May 7 the creature began to evolve. During the budget debate on June 13 Prime Minister the Right Hon Perry Christie said: "As previously announced the government will hold a national referendum on the issue of web shop gaming and a national lottery, which holds the potential to make an important financial contribution in support of our national economic and social priorities in years ahead.
"I do want to stress, however, that this will be a matter for the electorate to decide one way or another in a transparent and fair process.
"I will also stress that the matter will in no way whatsoever involve consideration of permitting Bahamians to gamble in any of the casinos."
And the evolution started. The referendum was no longer about gambling across the board – which is what many Bahamians expected – but suddenly became limited to numbers houses (web shops) and a national lottery. A section of Bahamians were upset by this – that the discrimination in the law against Bahamians gambling in casinos would remain – however, many supporters were willing to accept this and hope for change to that limitation in the future. Former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham had a less complimentary view, saying “You can’t put it forward and then say your hands are clean. You can’t make a deal with the number fellas before election, get their money, and then call upon me to support you and to vote for it. I wouldn’t waste my time with such a referendum.”
Then came the hiring of consultants from the United Kingdom – Dixon, Wilson and Co – along with detractors who felt that the consultancy was an unnecessary expense, but nonetheless they were hired and gave their advice according to the Prime Minister. After receiving conference call in early October PM Christie revealed that the report from the UK Consultancy group was not favourable of a national lottery. He said the advisors expressed worries that a national lottery catering to a small country like The Bahamas might not be as attractive as larger games of chance with higher cash prizes in the nearby United States. “The consultants have a number of concerns about the feasibility of a lottery in the sense of whether or not there is a sufficient market here to sustain a lottery as opposed to web shop operations,” Christie said. “One of the considerations obviously is that we give very careful consideration to whether or not we want to proceed with the lottery as opposed to the web shops.
So we now had a new creature once again as what began as a consideration eventually became a reality and the national lottery question was nixed from the referendum after making the announcement of the date of the referendum in Parliament on November 1. The question, he reported in the House of Assembly, would be “do you support the legalisation and regulation of web shops in The Bahamas?”
Mr Christie also added that not all web shops would be able to get a license and there would be a cap on the number of businesses permitted. Those who seek to be considered for a license would be required to have experience, integrity and show the financial capability among other requirements. With the singular question now publicly and officially revealed – though we still await the exact wording – the murmuring of the people began. “Why is the national lottery not an option,” being among the top questions voiced. The questions lead to a desire to see the report from the UK Consultants. Back in October, Christie was asked whether the report from the consultants was ready. He has now requested that the advisors present a more detailed report so that the public can have as much information on the issue ahead of the referendum. “The consultants that we’ve had employed have made an initial report to me now, that I am reviewing with a view to seeing what other information may be necessary for me to provide the Bahamian public with prior to appointing a date for the referendum,” Christie said at the time. On November 6 Mr Christie seemed confused about the existence of these reports. Christie said the advisors, who worked with the government for years on other issues, have only handed him a few pages of recommendations on gambling and told reporters he would have no problem arranging an opportunity for the media to interview the consultants, who are from the firm Dixon, Wilson & Co. “What report? What report?” he responded, when asked if he would release the consultants’ report before the referendum on gambling. “The government has a continuing relationship with gaming consultants with all matters to do with that. It was never a specific report.
“It’s no physical report; there are three or four pages of advice that you get from time to time. I don’t understand the question of whether there is a report to be released. There are like five, six, seven different letters to us — no report.”
When asked if he would release the written communication from the consultants, he said, “No, why would I want to do that? For years and years we’ve been receiving advice as to casinos and changing casinos, so what is the relevance, that I’m hiding something on it? We can arrange for these same people to come out and sit before you and answer any questions you would wish to have answered.”
And further morphing from the original took place as Mr Christie also reported he is looking into what to call this creature stating that he was advised that because it is not a constitutional matter it should not be referred to as a referendum. The indication is that this will be more like an opinion poll on the question. This leads us to the present creature that we, the Bahamian people, are being asked to give our opinion on. No longer a referendum on gambling and lotteries, we are now left with an opinion poll on whether to decriminalise and regulate the numbers operations in The Bahamas. One is left to wonder what we are really being asked. Are we simply being asked to give the present administration our collective blessing as they it is suggested that they seek to pay off their debt to the group of Web shop owners who generously financed their election campaign? We are left to ask who will benefit from this arrangement, if they indeed proceed with decriminalising this illegal industry. Where are the true benefits to the people? Does the limited scope of this question now only benefit a select few? I think the majority of thinking Bahamians now see this creature as it really is.
S TIMOTHY ROBERTS
November 8, 2012.