A pastoral letter to the Anglican family and the wider community on the subject of the proposed legalisation of the “numbers business” in the Bahamas.
By REV LAISH BOYD, SR
DEAR brothers and sisters of the Anglican Family and wider community, I wish to address you on the subject of the proposed referendum on the legalisation of the “numbers business” in the Bahamas.
I wish to provide you with some information and also encourage broad discussion. This will aid you in your decision making.
The issue is the decision of the government to hold a referendum so that the people can decide on whether or not there should be the expansion of gambling in the country. We understand this to mean the legalisation of the local numbers business (web shop activities) but not a provision for a national lottery (this statement was issued before Prime Minister Christie added the national lottery to the referendum). The Progressive Liberal Party promised a referendum in its pre-general election Charter for Governance. The Free National Movement, when it was the government, had also indicated that it would resolve the self-same question by way of a referendum.
In 1959, the government of the Bahamas made explicit provision to legalise casino gambling in the country.
The decision was made for economic reasons focused on the facilitation of the expansion of tourism. The general public was not consulted.
Since 1959, successive governments have increased the number of casino operations. Gambling is a key component of our tourism product and is also at the heart of economic activities in the country.
The country as a whole was tacitly brought into the economic reality of casinos and, thereby, legalised gambling, without paying attention to the moral argument. Few church officials have ever suggested that their members avoid employment in casino-related establishments.
There have arisen, from time to time, protests against the denial of the right of Bahamians to participate in casino gambling. These arguments usually cite the provision of the Constitution against discrimination. The government’s official reason for the denial was the desire to protect the local citizens and residents in light of the generally acknowledged negative impact of the Hobby Horse Race Track which was a thriving entity at the time.
The illegal numbers business has taken root over the past century. We grew up knowing about the place of thriving establishments that were a staple part of the Bahamian landscape and diet. The numbers business has expanded significantly over the past decade, with the introduction of gambling via the web shops: same concept, new packaging. Although verifiable data is not available, there can be no doubt that a significant number of Bahamians engage in these activities which are regulated and controlled solely by the operators of the web shops. Persons in the industry have said informally that there could be 150-200,000 web accounts in existence in the various web shop companies combined in the country.
Given the technological basis of the web shop operations, the ability of the police to prevent or control such operations is minute to negligible.
Both major political parties publicly announced their intention to hold a referendum on the future of the web shop operations. The reasoning behind this policy decision was the desire to bring some regulation and control to the present “industry”, coupled with economics – as was the case in 1959.
Both major political parties appear to be determined to remove these activities from the criminal arena. Under our existing law operators of gambling houses and persons who patronise such establishments are breaking the law.
We note that the number of “web shops” has increased tremendously all over the Bahamas since the time of the last surge of national discussion in 2009-2010. In just those 2-3 short years the increase in these locations has been nothing short of phenomenal. Anyone who travels the islands of the Bahamas can attest to this.
The reasons for this are four-fold:
• The government continues to be unable or unwilling to enforce the existing law
• The government continues to give licenses for web shops knowing that the principal function of these establishments is – by far – not providing computer caf� facilities for those who have no computer of their own, or for children to do homework after school
• Sheer supply and demand. The market forces have indicated and dictated expansion. Enough persons want to do it to be able to sustain an increase in the number of locations. There are even roving “customer-service agents” with hand-held devices who come to where you are to do business.
• The freedom enjoyed by the companies involved in an industry that is against the law. They advertise in the media, they have banded together into an association, they are touting their contribution to society (number of employees, salaries paid, NIB and other benefits paid, all adding to the economy – not to mention their contributions to sports, charitable, church and community development pursuits). They have even indicated that they are prepared to spend more than $1 million on a marketing campaign to ensure a favourable referendum result.
The whole matter has really gotten quite out of hand and, some will argue, is too big for even the police to reign in. Unless the government is prepared to simply shut down these establishments “cold turkey” – which it seems to be unprepared or unwilling to do – then the government has no other choice than to attempt to regulate and tax the existing industry. The Prime Minister indicated that, if the result of the referendum did not favour the decriminalising of the numbers business, the government would have no other choice than to shut down these establishments. This must be taken as the government’s assertion that these establishments can simply be “shut down.”
A referendum, on any issue provides the citizens with an opportunity to participate in the formulation of policy. While there may be cause for some to suspect the motive behind the use of the referendum mechanism, the right of the citizens to be consulted is an important aspect of genuine democracy. Also, one has to respect the fact that some issues are so significant, and represent such a major shift in policy, norms or behaviour, that it might be best if governments seek the comment of a majority of citizens before venturing into such a new arena.
Adequate opportunity must be provided for persons to examine the issues before they are invited to express their ‘choice’ by way of the ballot box. The church must be an agency that encourages dialogue and that creates a forum for information and wholesome discussion on this and other issues, since a part of our stewardship is being a good citizen in the country where God has placed us. Our duty to God involves our participation in national life. Remember the Biblical injunction: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This calls Christians to play their part in national life and in dealing with national issues.
We must be certain that persons who make a choice on this subject do so from an informed position, ie, knowing what motivation is informing their choice.
What is gambling?
Gambling is a broad subject area encompassing games or activities involving some risk with the potential for granting an advantage to the person or persons who “play” or “are involved”. Some persons condemn all forms of this activity. There are others who tolerate them in varying degrees. For example, many persons have no difficulty with raffles and door prizes, or with a game of bingo. These are isolated and individual events which are usually held for fundraising and charitable causes. Individuals will buy a raffle ticket, or a door prize ticket at an event, or play a game of bingo and give no second thought to it; they see it as harmless, as I believe these involvements to be.
Edward Rodgers writes: “A small stake in a raffle for a worthy cause inflicts no conceivable hardship on the purchaser of the ticket and is motivated more by generous desire to help than by anticipatory greed.” This reasoning led the 108th session of our Diocesan Synod, meeting in October, 2008, to allow raffles in our Anglican Schools as a means of fundraising. This came after many years of a moratorium on the holding of raffles in the diocese that was put in place during the time of the late Bishop Michael Eldon. Recently, the 111th Session of Synod passed another resolution to lift that moratorium entirely and to allow parishes also to hold raffles for fundraising purposes.
Kindly note that these two decisions have nothing to with, and are completely unrelated to, the current discussion on the expansion of legal opportunities for gambling. They would have occurred even if that discussion did not take place or was not taking place.
The Anglican Church has no difficulty with raffles, door prizes or bingo.
The numbers business is a completely different thing. It is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week enterprise in which persons engage and which is definitely habit-forming and downright addictive for a majority of its participants. It is a system which is designed to exploit the participants so that the few will benefit at the expense of the many. The modern day reality is that this form of gambling is easily accessible to all via the internet, via numerous web shops and via other means. Persons can play with very little money. This easy access leads to widespread use by persons of all ages, classes, backgrounds and socio-economic standings.
• See tomorrow’s
Tribune for part 2 -
“The moral argument”