IN this column, we have already dealt with the two questions that Bahamians were asked to answer in the gambling referendum on January 28 last year, but in view of comments made by gambling chief Craig Flowers, in a radio interview last week, we return to the subject today.
Mr Flowers, CEO of FML Group of Companies, was asked for his opinion should government decide to go against the wishes of the voters and licence the webshops.
“Let me assume,” Mr Flowers replied, “that you would have voted ‘no’ to the questions asked, that we should not regulate webshops. We should let them run rampant. We should leave backdoors open. We should let whatever, drugs, money laundering run in and out.
“I am speaking about the question,” he clarified, “and the question was whether or not you, who voted no, you are saying leave webshops alone.”
Mr Flowers’ interpretation of how the public voted is correct. However, it was obvious by the reaction of the voters that that was not how they expected their “no” vote to be interpreted. In fact, their intention was that their resounding “no” vote should have reflected their wishes that all webshops be closed immediately.
Caught between a rock and a hard place — the Church and webshop owners — government did not want to lose the vote of the church. Obviously neither did it want to lose the support of webshop owners, who it was claimed, contributed heavily to the PLP’s 2012 election victory and — if the “numbers” men had not underwritten the cost of the referendum — they were believed to have made a substantial contribution to it. Despite being asked to clarify this financial position of web shop contributions, government has yet to do so.
Therefore, although government could have saved the Public Treasury from paying the cost of an unnecessary referendum, the politicians were desperate to find an escape route. They were trying to shift the gambling decision from themselves to the people. If the people said “no”, the Church would have been silenced, and the politicians could have shrugged off all blame by telling their gambling friends that they were obliged to follow the “voice of the people.”
Instead of two straightforward questions, for example:
Do you support the closure of webshop gaming?
If your answer is “no”, would you support them being regulated and taxed?
Instead, someone must have thought long and hard on how to formulate the question so that no matter the answer the webshops would not have to close.
In fact the question asked on referendum day – January 28, 2013 – was:
- Do you support the regulation and taxation of webshop gaming?
If the voters answered “no” to this question then not only would the webshops continue to operate, but as Mr Flowers told the radio audience, “you are saying leave webshops alone” – no regulation and no taxation.
If, on the other hand, the vote was “yes” then the web shops would remain open, but they would be regulated and taxed.
Obviously, churchmen did not pick up on this trick question. They campaigned — and they campaigned hard — advising the public to vote “no”, which the majority did. Although the voter turnout was poor, those who did vote believed they were voting for complete closure. They wanted an end to web shops.
As a matter of fact, a few days before the vote Mr Flowers had said that should Bahamians vote “no” he would be the first to close down his webshops “without remorse”. Mr Christie had also promised closure should the referendum fail — in other words if the vote was “no” — webshops would cease operation.
The “no” vote was considered a loss to the government. All along, government had declared it had no horse in the race. But, not only had it a horse in the race, but that handsome brute was saddled and champing at the bit.
“Accordingly,” said Prime Minister Christie in a brief statement after the “no” vote, “all offending webshop owners and operators are placed on notice that all their gaming operations, including all online gaming and the numbers games must cease with immediate effect. Failure to do so will leave web shop owners, operators and web shop gaming patrons exposed to arrest and criminal prosecution without further notice or warning.”
Almost immediately, lawyers, representing the webshops were before the court, seeking an injunction to keep their clients’ illegal businesses open. The lawyer’s argument was that his clients were not operating illegally as their businesses did not come under the Lotteries and Gaming Act. An order was also requested and granted to restrain the police from interfering with them as they conducted their “legitimate business”. The injunction was immediately granted. Prime Minister Christie’s order was suspended while the court took over the matter.
The application then went before Chief Justice Sir Michael Barnett who refused to grant the continuation of the injunction. To date, the question is in limbo while the webshops are not only flourishing, but appear to be more active than ever. It is estimated that there are about 35 companies operating about 251 web shops.
More than a year after the referendum and the “no” vote, webshops are still in business.
If this country is to be a nation of laws, then the webshop issue has to be brought to a close.
The decision now rests with government. Webshops have either to be shut down, or declared legal, regulated and taxed. When this is done, webshop regulations will attract international attention when the Bahamas’ financial services sector again comes under scrutiny for assessment.
It is hoped that by then the webshop question will have been satisfactorily settled.