It is interesting that some pundits accuse “the pundits” of the Bahamas to be too silent on the issue of a question being put before the nation’s voters on 3rd December, because a number of pundits, such as Larry Smith or Front Porch Simon, have weighed in on this issue, which has been looked at from many different angles, but few have come out in support the proposed referendum.*
There are supporters of the referendum, but their contributions tend to find their way into established media as paid advertisements rather than as op-eds. The campaign relies heavily on social media and the mass appeal created there by “liking” or “retweeting.”
The official opposition has not regained its composure after the by-election in North Abaco, and, except for tepid, timid criticism when the silence becomes too awkward, instead relies on a few mouthpieces with no official connection to the party. This cacophony of voices we hear is either exaggerating or obscuring the issue, and all too often focussing on utterly irrelevant aspects of it, as personal gain or political loyalty determine their stance.
One of the PLP’s campaign promises for its first 100 days in office was this: “Provide details for a referendum on a National Lottery and gambling in The Bahamas.” Needless to say, the promise was broken, as details for the event on December 3rd are still shrouded in fog 23 days before the date, but 187 days after the election; only yesterday did Perry Christie announce that another announcement would be forthcoming next week.
When we talk about gambling in the Bahamas, we are not just talking about gambling, but rather a whole array of issues:
- Gambling as such, and a criticism thereof based on their interpretation of the Bible as well as their interpretation of their religious role in our society, is the focus of the “Christian Council.” That body, as is often the case, made its case heard “proactively,” when nobody had asked for it – most notably during this year’s independence celebrations.
- Economic benefits for an abstract bigger picture is what the “Vote Yes” campaign chooses to focus on. Of course, this argument not only neglects that these benefits are the result of countless Bahamians foolishly gambling away their money, but their campaign is, upon closer analysis, nothing but smoke and mirrors. Their numbers do not add up, and the website has been changed to disguise this fact, but no real numbers have replaced the fraudulent ones that vanished. Initially, it was claimed that the numbers industry generates an annual revenue of $40 million, creates 3,000 jobs, and could contribute, if taxed at 25%, $26M to the public treasury. Revenue, by definition, is the amount of money taken in before subtracting expenses, and should not be mistaken for profit. $40 million taxed at 25% is $10 million, not $26 million; if untaxed, it can pay for 3,000 jobs, but then your rent and utility bills would remain largely unpaid, even if they are all minimum wage jobs, because you also claim huge donations to charities. All of this would mean you make no profit. Apparently, the numbers men expect is to believe that they are not in it for the money. These, more so than the current illegality of some of the webshops’ activities is probably the reason why the “Vote Yes” campaign is trying to hide the identities of the individuals behind it.
- The one argument of the “Vote Yes” campaign that I can sympathise with, is that gambling can be seen as a form of entertainment, and that it is none of my business how you use your money to entertain yourself. Agreed, as I also do not want you to tell me how I use my money to entertain myself. Need an example? Some people spend frivolous amounts of money on golfing. I do not find golf entertaining, and instead am inclined to agree with Mark Twain, who said, “A game of golf is a good walk spoiled.” I also do not find gaming entertaining, but then again, I am a plane spotter; you probably do not find that entertaining.
- Then there’s the question of discrimination. The 1969 Lotteries and Gaming Act prohibits residents from participating in casino gambling. When the constitution was written for independence, clause 26, paragraph 4, subsection e was included to permit the possibility that the gaming law might not follow more general anti-discrimination clauses, however, the constitution does not ban gambling. It leaves it up to the legislators to allow or ban gambling, and it allows legislators to discriminate against Bahamians when doing so. While I strongly feel that any kind of legally sanctioned discrimination is wrong, it does not require a constitutional amendment to allow Bahamians to gamble, despite some pundits claiming that Perry Christie may be about to commit treason if he allows Bahamians to gamble under the current constitution. However, the PLP’s “Charter” never planned to address the question of discrimination written into section 50 of the 1969 act, as casino gambling was not included in their plan.
- A referendum on a national lottery on the other hand was included in their list of campaign promises. However, shortly after Christie publicly announced that the government would look at local experts, for instance from the College of the Bahamas, for consultancies, as opposed to foreign consultants, they hired a UK-based consultancy firm, which in record time produced a report that said that a national lottery in the Bahamas would not be viable due to the country’s small size. I will not go into any more detail here, as I have a gut feeling that future developments may shed some more light on this issue before the referendum – see the next two points.
- This then brings us to the question of transparency. The consultants drew their conclusions faster than gamblers pick their numbers. To convince the public that thorough research was done, demands began to be heard that the report ought to be made available for review by the public. This prompted Christie to deny the existence of any formal report.
- Yesterday, Christie announces that another announcement will be forthcoming. BahamasPress (usually in Christie’s pocket) announced shortly afterwards that the announced announcement will see the consultants reporting to the Bahamian public about a non-existent report. We shall wait and see.
- If a national lottery in the Bahamas would not be viable, how are they viable in even smaller Caribbean nations which have them, and how are webshops, which are essentially privately-operated, competing and thus smaller lotteries, viable? A national lottery, clearly, would not be in the interest of the number bosses; it would hurt their business model. A national lottery, however, should be of interest to the Bahamian people, for they would be the owners, collectively, and all profits – not just a taxable percentage – would contribute towards the common good of the Commonwealth.
- There is debate on whether the referendum question has been announced, even Christie is trying to play semantics with that one. My ears heard it as having been communicated by Christie in the House of Assembly: the question would be whether or not we “support the legalisation and regulation of webshops. (7:30 minutes). Yet webshops are already legal, and they have business licenses. Some of their activities are currently not legal, but how would this unannounced but announced question address that issue?
- The above video goes on to hint at future licensing practises, but these hints remain so vague that I can already hear, through a portal in time, cries of victimisation that will make us forget any and all previous cries of victimisation ever heard in our Bahamaland.
- Legalisation of webshop gaming will enable a privileged few to come clean with their currently illegal fortunes, but will not benefit the many. The numbers they themselves provide demonstrate that, while the number of jobs may sound impressive, they are poorly paid jobs, continuing the exploitation of the masses by a small mercantile minority.
A referendum should be the ultimate tool in a democracy allowing for all citizens’ direct participation, however, given the lack of transparency and the nature of this referendum, which in reality is an extravagantly expensive opinion poll, we are witnessing a farce. Christie appears to be indebted to the numbers men, but seems to lack the chuzpe to take on the “Christian Council” on their behalf, thus trying to pass the buck to the populace on a non-sensical question he could easily push through parliament with his more than comfortable majority of seats.
Playing games with a referendum is being disrespectful to the electorate, the sovereign in a democracy. Am I willing to be a pawn in Christie’s game? No, I am not willing to take that gamble.