By ADRIAN GIBSON
ADMITTEDLY, I was pleased to see that the government decided to overlook potential electoral threats and/or the propensity to please campaigning churchmen (to lock up their church members’ votes) and instead chose to govern. The announcement by Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe of the government’s intent to regulate local gaming operations by July 1 was welcomed by many and was demonstrably decisive, signalling an end to the confusion concerning number house operations since last year’s failed referendum.
Two weeks ago, I wrote:
“The government should move with haste to tax and regularise the sector. Quite honestly, officials should seek to meet with the Bahamas Christian Council and respectfully remind the leaders of that body of the government’s obligations to govern within the best interest of the state and that, while their views are respected and many times adhered to, this is an issue where the government must act and strongly pursue the concept of a separation between church and state. Moreover, the government must also commit itself to a series of town hall meetings to inform the public of its decision and to explain why they would take such a policy position in the wake of the botched referendum.”
I’ve long held the view that the government should hastily pass legislation to amend the gaming laws as it relates to Bahamians gambling locally and thereby legalise the Bahamas’ favourite pastime.
In 2008, former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham announced in the House of Assembly that he was considering “legalising gambling” and thereby generated a heated debate throughout the islands and on the airwaves. While contributing to the debate on an Opposition-sponsored selected committee on crime, Mr Ingraham said:
“On Sunday morning, you go to the gaming houses, to Flowers and those places, and it is like a bank on payday—government payday. They are set-up like a bank, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of places. Well, whether we believe that it is illegal, or we believe that it should be legal.”
The numbers business in the Bahamas has mushroomed and become a nationwide (even worldwide) phenomenon, which has evolved into a high-tech operation that employs hundreds of Bahamians and is frequented by thousands of Bahamians. At local number houses, there are daily lottery drawings as even pastors are speculated to place bets online, spin and play online games and/or send out their assistants to the various gambling houses to select their chosen numbers. It is not uncommon to see police officers and other lawmen patronizing number houses. Indeed, on Sunday mornings, number houses are packed tighter than sardines in a can!
The local gaming industry transcends numbers; it is multifaceted and includes ATM operations, casino games and lending and borrowing facilities.
So, in the wake of the government’s announcement on the gambling houses, what about the results of the botched referendum? Are the web shop operators going to pay the $1.5 million that was spent to conduct the opinion poll?
Indeed, the government’s policy position—whilst welcomed—would lead some to conclude that the referendum held on January 28, 2013 was nothing short of a confusing and unnecessary sham. Undoubtedly, if the government doesn’t conduct town hall meetings and explain the shift in policy—as I suggested in an earlier column—last year’s miscarried referendum could forever sully the view of Bahamians on these undertakings, adopting a view of them as nothing more than political tools used by administrations that don’t have the testicular and gonadal fortitude to make stern decisions and stick to them come what may!
Yes, there was a need to regulate the industry but the government could have done so some time ago. They have always had the numbers — 30 to 8 in the House of Assembly—to easily effect change, even of the Constitution (along with the popular vote). If the government had a horse in the race, it should have said so at the outset and maybe, just maybe, the referendum results would have been different.
That said, it is high-time that the government repeals the current Lotteries and Gaming Act, with a view to establishing a national lottery and permitting Bahamians to not only own web shops but also casinos and to play games of chance with their disposable income without fear of arrest or prosecution. For far too long, the Lotteries and Gaming Act has been a discriminatory, unconstitutional tool that has excluded citizens from lawfully participating in acts that foreigners could readily do. It promotes an inequitable and intolerable double standard!
Annually, millions of dollars leave the Bahamas, as droves of Bahamians buy US lottery tickets. It would also be in the national interest to join Jamaica and Barbados and launch a national lottery that could generate supplementary funds for infrastructural and human development. If a national lottery is to be established, it must be overseen by reputable, non-partisan private citizens who sit on a well vetted board. Furthermore, there must be frequent audits that should be published every quarter.
As I stated a few years ago, web shop operators should be made to pay between $50,000 to $200,000 — on a sliding scale — per year for their business licenses and be mandated to pay an annual tax of between 10 to 20 per cent of their overall revenue. Moreover, local web shop/casino operators should be made to pay a casino tax, at a reduced rate when compared to that of foreign hotel/casino owners. Undoubtedly, funds generated from such taxation can be used to improve health services, education, culture, the arts, sports, infrastructural upgrades/developments and to assist our senior citizens.
Today, operators of the numbers racket are no longer small scale underground hustlers, but instead have become high-rollers who brazenly flaunt in the face of the law and live in ostentatious houses in the suburbs, with luxurious vehicles (even Hummers) parked in their driveway.
Although Craig Flowers was convicted of illegal gaming in 2011, what would that conviction mean in a new, regularized environment? Is it going to be regularized retroactively? In 2009, some $834,629.32 was seized from Mr Flower’s Wulff Road web shop. If Mr Flowers was convicted, it means that everyone who has participated in this industry has been guilty of doing the same thing! Unfortunately, Mr Flowers—who I think is perhaps the most stand-up guy among them all—also holds the distinction of being the only one convicted in the Magistrate’s Court of illegal gaming and that conviction still stands pending an appeal. So, having been convicted, would the government seek to exclude the godfather of modern web shops from participating in the new regularized environment? And if so, will it mean that all the others who have admitted to participating ought to be similarly charged and convicted? If a decision is made to give all of the web shop owners a pass, will they apply the same courtesy to Craig Flowers? Wouldn’t that truly be the application of natural justice since these businessmen all admit to participating in the activity for which Flowers was convicted?
I like Craig Flowers. I have become acquainted with him and find him to be one of the most gentlemanly figures of the gaming industry. Mr Flowers brings a level of credibility and credence to the local gaming industry. The truth is that this grand gentleman of the numbers industry functioned with a level of restraint and modesty that is not typical of the in-your-face tactics of the new generation of number house operators. Indeed, it is likely that this situation would not have come to a head but for some of that new generation’s outrageous antics and monetary excesses. I wonder if Mr Flowers will be the sacrificial lamb on the plastic altar of political correctness. If there is one person who deserves a license in the newly proposed regularized environment, it is Craig Flowers but the government might find itself caught in a hell of a quandary as to how they will do so. It is likely that there will be a special clause built into the legislation to give the proprietor of FML a pass....and rightly so.
“It is obvious, based on the gaffes made by so many of the governing party’s leadership that there is nothing that is sacred and that in the mind of this government anything goes,” Dr Duane Sands stated.
I do think that the government must set about addressing many of the associated vulnerabilities—e.g. money laundering – presented by this soon to be regularized sector of the economy, particularly since, according to Central Bank Governor Wendy Craigg, the web shops currently threaten to undermine proposed plans for a Bahamian Credit Bureau. I am of the view there are a few unsavoury characters involved in the web shop business and these individuals should be closely monitored and there should be a standard implemented for ownership or investment in such an entity. On Wednesday evening, I was reliably informed about how a web shop owner was touching the hips of a young lady and when her boyfriend sought to challenge him on it, the owner threatened the boyfriend by telling him that he had better remain quiet before he (the owner) puts a $10,000 hit on his head. We need to know whether the individuals currently owning web shops are fit and proper, whether they are able to qualify as legitimate business people. Who is going to vet these individuals? Is the government prejudiced and conflicted so much so that they are unable to adequately vet them?
Have these questions been thought about by the government? Could it be possible that a train wreck of legal precedent is being set here? In 2007, although they were faced with heavy criticism from the church, the government of the Turks and Caicos changed its gaming laws to allow locals to gamble in casinos. Then Premier Michael Missick’s gamble paid and his government was re-elected.
Indeed, there are some chronic gamblers who dream up numbers, take them from the license plates of vehicles involved in accidents, use birthdays and employ other eccentric schemes that they hope would lead to a win. Some Bahamians are so fixated with numbers and online games that some spend five or more dollars per day with hopes of winning their dream pay out. There must be some level of controls and an educational campaign about the pitfalls of excessive gambling. In the Turks and Caicos, one cannot participate in casino gambling unless they earn $50,000 per year. I’m not proposing that standard for participation in web shop games but perhaps $35,000-$50,000 annual salary could be seen as a benchmark for allowing persons who gamble in the traditional casinos. There must also be programmes to assist those chronic, gambling addicts and help to put them on the path to recovery if and when the time comes. Relative to the church, churchmen must realise that every church raffle is also a form of gambling. What is the difference between paying a dollar for a “number” with the hope that the gamble earns you cash and spending a dollar for a raffle ticket, taking the gamble with hopes to win a new car, free trips or some accessories? Is this some form of “soft-core” gambling?
Surely, as the government moves to regularize local gaming, the church must recognize that while there are some persons who would join everyday gamblers in playing numbers if it’s lawful, there are others (e.g. my grandparents on Long Island) who would not lay bets if the practice was completely legalised or even seek to purchase a church raffle ticket if it’s seen as playing a game of chance.
I look forward to the ensuing debate regarding the proposed regularisation of the web shops in the coming weeks.