MONDAY is referendum day — to gamble or not to gamble. Bahamians are to decide whether government should close all webshops or declare them legal, then regulate and tax them. The second question for the vote is whether web shops should be eliminated in favour of a government run lottery.
The past few weeks have seen serious electioneering on both sides as the “Yes” camp fights off the “No” camp, which is dedicated to removing all gambling from our society.
Both sides agree with a statement made by Dr Myles Munroe that when gaming is transformed from a “game of play to a major source of one’s lifestyle and survival it becomes a debilitating vice. This is the danger of nationalising the art of gaming in any form.”
For anyone to win in gambling too many have to lose.
As Archbishop Patrick Pinder put it the question is whether it is or is not time to “change the law in order to effectively regulate a behaviour which is illegal, lawless, long standing and unregulated. This activity continues boldly and publicly without apparent regard and respect for or fear of the current law.”
The “Yes” camp — webshop owners — have been openly buying votes. Just yesterday a young woman told us of a rap that came to her door. Someone from the Vote “Yes” camp was there to solicit her vote. As he left he pressed a $50 bill into her palm to “think about what a ‘yes’ would mean to the country.”
There will be much confusion among potential voters as to what exactly they are voting for. Up until two days ago a Bahamian gentleman believed that he would be voting to go to the hotels’ gaming tables, and, like the tourists, roll his dice. He was shocked when told that this was not what it was all about. By the end of the conversation, he had decided not to vote.
It is alarming the number of people — most of them fearing the vice of gambling in a community — have said they will boycott the polls. Reason: Too much confusion. Too many of the leaders saying one thing and then contradicting themselves and saying another. Basically it is a lack of trust in their leaders and too little information as to what it will all mean after the vote.
One respected gentleman believed that it should have been debated in the House, legislation drafted that would include what the taxation would be, profits expected, how it was to be regulated and once the draft legislation was clearly laid out, then taken to the electorate to ask whether they agreed or not.
The question of gaming has been with us for a long time. During Jeff Lloyd’s public debate a member of the audience, backed up by a newspaper clipping, recalled the promise made by then education minister — later governor of the Bahamas — AD Hanna in an interview with the Miami Herald. In that interview Mr Hanna announced government’s intention of doing away with casino gambling. The year was 1967.
In 1967, the year that brought majority rule to the Bahamas, casinos were a larger than life issue in the election campaign.
The UBP (the United Bahamian Party - now extinct) was characterised as a party that would extend casino licences throughout the Bahamas should it be returned to power.
The PLP, led by Lynden Oscar Pindling – obviously to win the Baptist vote —voted that casinos in the Bahamas would be a thing of the past if the PLP became the government.
The removal of the casinos was a most important principle in the PLP’s election plank.
In fact it helped win the election as it got the vocal Baptist on its side.
In February, 1967, Arthur Hanna in an interview with The Miami Herald made his historic pronouncement on the banishment of gambling.
“I am convinced,” Mr Hanna told The Miami Herald, “that there is no such thing as clean gambling.”
Although his government would not attempt to expropriate casino property, the licences would be allowed to expire — there would be no renewals.
The Licence for Freeport’s Bahamas Amusements Limited expired in 1973 and that of Paradise Island Enterprises Ltd in 1976. The Baptists were lulled to sleep.
“The casinos’ contribution to the Bahamian economy is not enough to make them worth it and there is too much evidence that the profits are being returned to the US mob,” Mr Hanna told the Herald. Mr Hanna made it clear that he was expressing the view of his party.
By 1971 the PLP government was again discussing the future of casinos in the Bahamas. At an October 1970 PLP convention prime minister Pindling circulated a manifesto stating that government would have no alternative but to take over the casinos.
From it being a sin that came with “elements such a prostitution,” the PLP government was now proposing to get into the business. The Baptists were rolling in the aisles in righteous indignation.
When the matter came to a debate on the floor of the House, the late Carlton Francis, a member of the Pindling cabinet, but also a Baptist minister, refused to vote with the government.
Mr Francis was against all forms of gambling. Declaring it a matter of conscience he angrily scribbled a note, which he handed to prime minister Pindling then stormed out of the House. It was his resignation.
And now 46 years later the question of whether to gamble or not to gamble is up for the decision of the Bahamian people.
We hope they put the welfare of their country and their people first when they go to the polls on Monday.