ON January 30 last year — two days after less than half the voting public said “no” to the legalisation of webshops— The Tribune’s headline read: “PM: Webshops must close now.”
“In keeping with my Government’s commitment to abide by the will of the electorate as expressed on Monday’s referendum,” said Prime Minister Christie, “it has now become necessary to effect the closure of all webshop gaming operations in The Bahamas.
“Accordingly, 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 all such webshop owners, operators and webshop gaming patrons exposed to arrest and criminal prosecution without further notice or warning,” he said.
Police Commissioner Ellison Greenslade followed the PM’s lead with a statement that his forces were “mounting an operation” to close the gambling dens. In the meantime, webshop owners went to the Supreme Court for a declaration that their operations were not regulated by the Lotteries and Gaming Act and, therefore, should be allowed to continue in business.
However, before the January 28, 2013, vote, FML owner Craig Flowers announced his intention to close all of his shops should the majority of Bahamians vote “no” to gambling on referendum day. Island Luck owner Sebastian Bastian expressed similar sentiments.
One of the main arguments against closing the webshops in the lead-up to the vote was that too many Bahamians would be added to the already unhealthy unemployment lines.
As time passed, no webshops closed, they only grew stronger as the owners grew bolder. Despite the impression given that continued webshop operations were important to keep Bahamians employed, Mr Flowers announced a few days ago that he had to restructure his workforce by firing those with less qualifications to meet the gaming industry’s demands for persons with better qualifications.
“Our plans of going forward,” he said, “have been restricted by employees, and we’re not proud of that but we’re making decisions as it relates to the business. The majority (terminated) were people with us for 12 years, ten years. We would have employed people then without any credentials, background checks, today this industry has evolved to a level where the operators have no choice if it is to compete in a global world.” Forty-five former employees had to go to make room for 45 better-qualified replacements.
It is still unclear how much the referendum has cost the Treasury. National Security Minister Dr Bernard Nottage announced at the time a $5 million figure, whereas Prime Minister Christie, who is also Finance Minister, said it was nearer $1 million.
On March 5, Tourism Minister Obie Wilchcombe made the surprise announcement that he intended to take a proposal to cabinet for the regularisation of webshops by July 1.
Last week, Prime Minister Christie said that although Minister Wilchcombe had acted independently in making his announcement, he fully supported the regularisation of webshops.
Mr Christie, in supporting the legalisation of webshops, said he now had to go against his words spoken last year in light of today’s fiscal situation. He admitted that he should have followed through with the groundwork set by the former administration to regularise the industry. He explained that the risks associated with the current underground economy necessitated his government’s turnaround on the issue.
In just over a year, government legislators have woven such a tangled web that we shall leave it to them to extricate themselves from their many contradictions.
In the meantime, let us consider Bahamians, and what is best for them, their children and their country.
We are now faced with two evils — gamble or not to gamble. We have to decide between the lesser of the two evils. Unlike the Baptists for whom gambling is a mortal sin that cannot be tolerated on any level, we believe that, like everything else, gambling in moderation can be accepted by society. Gambling becomes evil when it is indulged in to such an excess that it destroys the gambler and his family.
We believe that gambling is so entrenched in the Bahamian psyche that it will go underground if outlawed. That is when it will become dangerous and crime will increase. The evil that can be seen is the evil that can best be controlled by law.
It is for society to decide whether it would be easier to try to rehabilitate the gambler, or chase the underground criminals with unlimited amounts of illegal wealth.
We respect the Baptists’ religious beliefs, but we do not believe that they can legislate the beliefs of their fellow Bahamians. It will be up to Baptist ministers to encourage their members to live up to the tenets of their faith, while other members of the public are allowed to police their own consciences.
We now have an illegal system making unbelievable amounts of money that local banks refuse to accept. Already, tremendous mischief is afoot.
As Prime Minister Christie warned: “Having vast amounts of money circulating otherwise than through the banking system, the negative impact of money laundering and possibly having large cash transfers outside the country without exchange control approval and other proper clearances, could pose serious problems and result in blacklisting of The Bahamas.”
We think that both the Government and Opposition should come together — forget their differences — and regulate this potential menace for the health of this country and its people.