Taking it to the people
Casino question to be absent from ballot, but heavy considerations loom
By Candia Dames
Guardian News Editor
The government may be making a bold move in putting the controversial gambling question to the people, but it is not prepared to go the whole hog and possibly reverse a decades old discriminatory law that prohibits Bahamians from gambling in local casinos.
Although Prime Minister Perry Christie had previously made it clear that casino gambling will not be up for consideration when a referendum is held, some people still appeared surprised to hear him repeat it last week.
“The referendum is about whether or not we have a national lottery, whether or not we legalize the web shop gambling. Full stop. It’s not about whether Bahamians gamble in casinos,” Christie said.
There were those who questioned the logic behind the government’s decision to leave this discriminatory law as is, but instead allow Bahamians to vote on whether to legalize numbers houses and establish a national lottery.
As the government prepares to encapsulate the complexities of the gambling issue into perhaps a few simply worded questions, the age-old debate on gambling is already reaching fever pitch.
Church leaders are doing battle; numbers bosses have formed a coalition and pledged money for an education campaign; talk show hosts and journalists can’t seem to get away from the topic and everyday citizens are debating the issue on the streets, in bars, restaurants, on editorial pages and everywhere else.
A referendum on gambling was inevitable no matter who won the recent general election, as the Progressive Liberal Party, the Free National Movement and the Democratic National Alliance all promised to put the question to the people.
Just how widespread illegal gambling operations are is unknown.
Back in 2006, Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe reported that there were at least 45 illegal gambling houses in New Providence and 12 in Grand Bahama, and 60 percent of the population was spending anywhere from $1.8 million to $2 million locally and abroad on games of chance each week.
Kenyatta Gibson, who at the time was chairman of the Gaming Board, reported that The Florida Lottery had conservatively estimated that Bahamians playing the Florida Lottery were spending US$100 million every year.
It is not clear whether ahead of the 2012 referendum the government will make public in very specific details how a legalized gambling industry would work, or wait to provide such details if a majority of voters vote in favor of legalization.
The opinions of members of government are also unclear as the government seems determined to remain neutral, at least for now.
When the Ingraham administration revealed in 2010 that it was considering legalizing the numbers business, Christie, who at the time was leader of the Official Opposition, said the PLP’s parliamentary caucus did not have a formal position on the matter.
“The Opposition has always up to this point treated gambling as it did with capital punishment where it’s a vote of conscience...We have members who are church members in a meaningful way in our grouping in the PLP, who I know flatly will support the position of the church and there are others who will take a different point of view,” he advised.
All that is clear now is there will be a referendum at some point and that casino gambling will not be on the ballot.
Gambling has existed in The Bahamas “for forever”, in the words of former parliamentarian George Smith, who said the law that still prohibits Bahamians from gambling in local casinos is steeped in racism.
“When they thought of putting casinos in prior to 1967 we have to remember that many of the tourists who came to The Bahamas at the time came from segregated states in the United States where people of the different races didn’t comingle, and when they came here there were segregated hotels,” Smith explained.
“Blacks couldn’t go in the British Colonial at one point and there were hotels, over-the-hill hotels, boarding hotels where blacks went.
“…Primarily at the time it was not about keeping the tourists separate from the high-end, wealthy Bahamian or the senior British and other civil servants or foreign people working for the hotels and other work permit holders.
“They didn’t really have them in mind but they couldn’t well say ‘Okay, we’re going to have a policy where the average Bahamian couldn’t gamble, but the Bahamian from the Eastern Road could’. So they said, no Bahamian, no resident, no work permit holder. It was reflected in the gaming and lotteries legislation. So that was the genesis of the policy.”
Smith opined that the time has long passed to do away with the discriminatory legislation like the law against casino gambling for Bahamians.
“We have to address it,” he told The Nassau Guardian.
“Now when we talk about what kind of society we want, we have to decide whether in 2013 (the 40th anniversary of our independence) we want a society that still permits a facility of this country that nationals of the country cannot enjoy.
“If we want an enlightened nation, then we have to approach these things with the facts up front and we cannot say that if we have lottery in The Bahamas or legalize the numbers business it’s going to cause crime, that prostitution is going to go up. There is no evidence to support this.”
He noted that the constitution has a savings clause that saved into law all acts that were in existence prior to July 10, 1973. The gaming legislation was one of those acts that were saved.
The gambling debate, as noted, is not a new one.
In a December 20, 1974 position paper titled “A Christian response to the proposal of the Bahamas Government to assume control of the ownership of casino gambling operations in The Bahamas”, Pastor Rex Major took a detailed look at the issue and laid out a case for why gambling goes against Christian principles.
His position is not unlike that being taken today by many clergymen.
Major pointed out that on November 28, 1974 the Pindling government announced on the floor of the House of Assembly its intention to assume ownership and control of casinos in The Bahamas as of January 1976.
Major argued that the philosophy of casino gambling denies the ideals of a new nation. The Bahamas at the time was just over one year old as an independent nation.
He further opined that gambling condones a lifestyle in which economic considerations are more important than moral ones.
“Gambling encourages a reckless parasitic approach to life in which one human fleeces another with no genuine personal regard for his neighbor’s welfare,” he wrote.
Major wrote that it is “not morally right to fleece foreign brothers so that our coffers can be full, by allowing them to pursue a course of action within our nation, which we deem demeaning for our own people.
“Such an attitude denies the genuine principle of the Christian faith that each of us has a responsibility to allow only the best and noblest for our fellow creatures…To promote casino gambling, therefore, as is intended, is to promote an exploitation of the worst kind.”
He also wrote that the expansion of casino gambling was an act of “blatant hypocrisy” when one looked at the position of “seemingly alert and concerned leaders” relative to the numbers racket.
Over the decades, casino taxes have been an important source of revenue for the Bahamas government.
Prime Minister Christie announced recently that a new casino will open in Bimini in December and will provide 300 new jobs.
While Bahamians cannot legally gamble in local casinos, many are gambling online already in the comfort of their homes, and many web shops have a casino style element.
While opponents of gambling dismiss the enforcement argument as a lame excuse to push for legalization, it is not possible for the government to stop Bahamians who want to do so from gambling.
Prime Minister Christie, however, has promised that the laws against gambling would be strictly enforced should a majority of Bahamian voters say “no” to legalization.
A commitment to enforcement of course has huge implications.
Assuming the political will exists, the police would have to find the necessary resources to crack down on these illegal operations and the police themselves — who following the government’s lead have for many years turned a blind eye to illegality — will have to find the will to enforce the law.
Additionally, several thousand people would be out of work, thereby worsening unemployment, and that would have a trickle down effect.
It is doubtful the Christie administration would have the political will to strictly enforce the laws by shutting down illegal operations and putting so many people out of work.
Advancements in technology create further challenges for enforcement.
While casino gambling will not be on the ballot, owners and operators of the few existing legally operating casinos in The Bahamas have been careful not to wade too far in the gambling debate.
But they are not fearful when it comes to expressing their views.
President and Managing Director of Kerzner International Bahamas Ltd. George Markantonis said the Paradise Island property is obviously conducting its operation according to the country’s laws.
Markantonis said, “We’d be delighted if there was a method to allow locals to participate in games of chance in the casinos, but realize that there are reasons why the rules are in place today. So we will wait and see what shows up in a national referendum and what the public debate leads to in the future.”
Asked if having locals gamble in the Paradise Island casino would be good for business, he noted that it would be beneficial for the company.
Baha Mar executive Robert Sands advocates limited relaxations of casino gambling regulations, although he did not go into great detail when he spoke with The Nassau Guardian.
“I believe that gaming regulations as written today do not put The Bahamas in a very competitive position and require a major overhaul if we are to level the playing field certainly in The Bahamas and be competitive with other jurisdictions…in North American and Europe and Asia,” Sands added.
Although the government will not have to consider the implications of Bahamians gambling in casinos — at least not this time around — establishing a national lottery and properly structuring a legal numbers industry would require great effort on the government’s behalf.
A “yes” vote would be just an initial step ahead of the real work; a “no” vote could strain the government’s commitment on the enforcement question.
July 16, 2012