IN a recent interview with The Nassau Guardian, FML Group of Companies CEO Craig Flowers criticised those who were trying to “kill the government” for making decisions.
Mr Flowers, the quiet man behind this country’s until now illegal gaming industry, asked to respond to church critics who condemned the government for ignoring the “no” vote in the 2013 gaming referendum, had this to say:
“When the (government) makes decisions, they’ve been given the mandate by the people in the country to govern.”
That is true, but what Mr Flowers fails to appreciate is that the government lost that right in this particular argument when it stepped down, and invited the Bahamian people to make the decision for them. The government promised that whatever the people voted in the referendum it would implement.
Prime Minister Christie tried to convince Bahamians that government had “no horse” in the race, therefore, “yes” or “no” the decision would be that of the people.
However, when we read the cleverly crafted questions we realised that the government not only had a horse in the race, but that that horse was very well fed and rearing to go. Obviously, his jockey intended him to win. Government expected a “yes” vote.
However, by the way in which the two questions were worded, no matter how the public voted, gambling would be legalised, either by the establishment of a national lottery or by letting the webshops continue as they had been operating for years with or without regulation and taxation.
The second question was straight forward: Do you support the establishment of a National Lottery? Although the turnout was small on referendum day, the majority of those who voted said “No.” It was clear that there would be no national lottery.
However, the first question was the one that has caused the problem. The dice were loaded.
“Do you support the regulation and taxation of webshop gaming?” the public was asked.
The inference was that webshops would continue in operation, the only question was should they be regulated and taxed. Those who voted did not interpret the question that way.
They thought that they were being asked whether the webshops should be allowed to continue in business. Their answer was an overwhelming “No!”
Two days after the vote, Prime Minister Christie announced:
“In keeping with my Government’s commitment to abide by the will of the electorate as expressed on Monday’s referendum it has now become necessary to effect the closure of all webshop gaming operations in The Bahamas.”
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.
Everything was put on hold.
In the end, the government was forced to do what it should have done from the beginning, but was desperately trying to avoid — make a decision. This was the mandate that Mr Flowers said they were given when elected, but they had passed the buck to the people so as not to fall afoul of the church.
What angered Bahamians even more was when they discovered that the referendum was not a real referendum, but just an opinion poll. Under the Constitution, no referendum was required. The problem could have been rectified, said Constitutional Committee Chairman Sean McWeeney, “by simply editing section 50 of the Lotteries and Gaming Act”.
According to National Security Minister Dr Bernard Nottage, the referendum cost the Treasury $5m. However, Prime Minister Christie, who is also Finance Minister, said it was nearer $1m. Even today Bahamians, who were invited to give an opinion that was ignored, have not been told the real cost of the exercise, or who paid for it — was it the Public Treasury or the webshop owners?
Mr Christie, in supporting the legalisation of webshops, said he had to go against his words spoken last year in view 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.
We fully understand his argument, but the Prime Minister lost the right to have a final say when he abdicated his decision-making to the people. He has now discovered that his government’s final position is worse than its first, and everyone is angry – the clergy, the voters and in some quarters even the smaller webshop owners.