By LARRY SMITH
THE internet arrived in the Bahamas in 1995. The government drafted its first e-commerce policy in 1999. And by the early 2000s, so-called web cafes were scattered across the island. The shops were licensed to provide internet access to the public – with no overt promotion of gambling.
A new generation of Numbers chiefs had developed sophisticated online gaming software based on computer servers outside the Bahamas, where gambling was legal. Customers here could use the internet for anything they wanted, but the web shop's gaming home page appeared on every screen and most people understood exactly why the web shops existed.
Fact is, anyone can sign up for an account from any computer anywhere to participate in a variety of gaming activities. For example, Island Luck's home page features poker, casino-style games and sports betting, in addition to a numbers lottery. It's head office is in Malta, but it claims 15 web shops on New Providence, Exuma, Abaco and Grand Bahama. The numbers of web shops in the Bahamas has grown annually over the past two decades, with 28 said to have been licensed by the government in January 2012.
Bahamians gamble with impunity because of two factors. First, the authorities have never bothered to enforce the law with any vigour. Second, the Numbers business is now mostly electronic, and the Lotteries and Gaming Act was not designed for this. So our Bahamian web shops have become part of a booming global online industry worth more than $30 billion annually.
It is interesting to look back at how the politically very well-connected Bahamas Uncensored website described the gaming situation in 2003:
"Numbers have now gone high-tech in The Bahamas...opening Internet cafes, and selling their wares over the Internet. You get an account by computer and your account is credited with the money if you win. The result is that you have no slips of paper with numbers lying around for the lawmen to capture, making an already difficult crime to prosecute, even more difficult. Our suggestion is that since gambling is so widespread, it should be legalized and the government get its cut by way of taxes…The reality is that Bahamians do not support the ban on gambling and the law must catch up with that reality."
But this past Sunday, Uncensored had this to say: "We watch with complete amazement and fright at the hysteria, irrationality and illogic and prejudice that goes on with the debate on gambling...This is a society which votes against its self-interest. These same pastors, politicians and civic leaders leading the no vote are surrounded by gambling every day, yet the simple question of regulation becomes a fundamental act of dishonesty on their part...We say to the government that if the no vote on web shops succeeds it should be ignored."
Initially, the conventional wisdom was that the referendum would produce an easy yes vote, as younger Bahamians did not share the animosity of their parents to gambling. But the government's inept handling of the process, the lack of transparency, and the confusing pronouncements gradually shifted public opinion. The Uncensored blog attributed a dramatic rise in opposition sentiment to the intervention of former prime minister Hubert Ingraham – who had planned to take the same course as the Christie administration if he had been re-elected:
"As we watch with trepidation the vote on 28th January, as we look at all his hidden soldiers in the public service and in the press, we now know the same old play book is at work again. Will the PLP continue to be like a deer with the lights in front of its face, or will they smack this guy own while they still can?"
Despite the emotion that has always surrounded this issue, and even with the growing partisanship exemplified by yet another crowd-pleasing clash between old rivals Perry Christie and Hubert Ingraham, less than half the electorate bothered to vote. And that record low turnout was arguably the most significant result. Turn-out in Bahamian elections is as high as 90 per cent. In the 2002 constitutional referendum, it was 70 per cent. I suspect the low turnout was based on the following calculation by many (like myself) who would otherwise have supported the proposals:
I don't want to vote no and replicate what Bahamian women did to themselves in the 2002 referendum. I don't want to vote yes and implicitly approve of how the government has mishandled the process. So I won't bother to vote at all, and that will be my protest. A low turnout will mean that the government will be denied the political cover it wanted from the people, and will 'own' whatever happens next, with consequences for the next general election.
In other words, the committed evangelical no vote was amplified by partisan political considerations, while many pragmatists boycotted the poll entirely. As Facebook commentator Cecil Newry put it: "There needs to be mass education of the populace regarding what is a referendum, what is expected of citizens, the structure, the procedures, then an education on the issues." Former PLP MP George Smith said much the same thing in his Cable 12 commentary on Monday night. Many others feared that the confusion and partisanship surrounding this vote would ultimately undermine the constitutional referendum planned for this summer, which is supposed to include a question on Bahamians gambling in hotel casinos.
So the question is - what happens now?
Prior to the vote, Prime Minister Perry Christie had said that a minority turnout would make the result "inconsequential" and the government would have to make its own judgment on the way forward. But the no voters have been energised, and any attempt to sweep the result aside – low turnout or not – will likely cause an uproar. Christie has created a dilemma for himself and the highly profitable web shop industry.
According to junior National Security Minister Keith Bell (a former police officer), “If the vote is no then you cannot just simply go there and rake the people out, arrest everybody, shut the place down, confiscate. I think that would be sending a wrong message in a progressive, democratic liberal society. I believe given the fact that these premises have valid licences, they are paying national insurance, and they are contributing to society in particular way, they should be treated with dignity."
Meanwhile, two of the major gambling operators have said they are prepared to close their web shops, but will likely continue their online gaming businesses from outside the jurisdiction. The government will have to draft new laws to interdict online gaming, which is no easy task. But the proliferation of web shops on every corner in every community will likely become a thing of the past - unless the government decides to hedge the vote.
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