A bad gamble
Gaming Bill resurrects calls for end to discrimination
By CANDIA DAMES
Guardian News Editor
The government of Prime Minister Perry Christie had another bad week last week.
In fact, it seems the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) administration has been tying itself into one strangling knot after another.
Leading up to the first anniversary of its May 7 victory, it is finding itself increasingly on the defensive and has been making the kinds of moves that awaken public angst and weaken the confidence of citizens in their government.
An increasingly hostile and confusing tone on work permits, a highly publicized immigration blunder at Atlantis resort and the junior national security minister’s suggestion that the Americans are fueling our crime problem by sending us criminal deportees were all matters that caught our attention last week.
But it was public reaction to The Nassau Guardian’s revelation on the proposed Gaming Act 2013, and an announcement that web shop layoffs could come as early as this week, that showed most clearly that the government has a lot of work to do to stem what seems to be rising anti-PLP sentiment.
Months after the failed January 28 referendum, gambling continues to be one of the most divisive and unnecessarily distracting issues in The Bahamas.
In the lead up to that referendum, there was great confusion about the process.
In the weeks and months since, there remains great confusion on the way forward for the web shop sector.
By far, the matter that is dominating national discussion is that proposed act on gambling.
As we reported, it would permit holders of casino licenses in The Bahamas to facilitate online and mobile gambling.
With a deal sealed with Las Vegas’ Cantor Gaming, Atlantis is set to offer its guests mobile gaming as of this week.
Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe, who has responsibility for gaming, said yesterday this will be offered during a “test period” and the property would have to apply for the relevant license to continue mobile gaming and eventually introduce online gaming.
The failed gambling referendum notwithstanding, many people are insulted by the discriminatory bill that would allow Atlantis, Baha Mar and the holders of other casino licenses in The Bahamas to do legally what is being denied Bahamian business people.
The bill has been in the works since shortly after the Christie administration came to office last year.
It was developed outside any considerations connected to the gambling referendum, and the government worked closely with industry stakeholders in its development.
The outrage over the government’s ongoing discriminatory approach to the gambling issue is most understandable when added to the fact that the new bill excludes permanent residents and work permit holders from the class of people not permitted to gamble legally.
The bill speaks only to the prohibition of Bahamian citizens.
Under existing legislation, permanent residents and work permit holders are also prohibited from gambling.
For Bahamians, the move could not be more insulting.
Another provision of the new bill would allow people outside The Bahamas to gamble via the website of a local gaming license holder.
But those people must be in jurisdictions that allow online gambling.
Wilchcombe said there will be tight controls to guard against Bahamians gambling from other jurisdictions.
While Bahamians ought to be concerned over the matter, any hysteria and anger toward the investors who have long been pushing for these industry reforms are misdirected, in my view.
As good and valued investors, Atlantis and Baha Mar deserve to have legislation passed for the protection and improvement of the gaming sector and the tourism industry.
The decision to block Bahamians from gambling in local casinos is not the investors’ decision.
The casino operators in fact have said more than once that they would welcome Bahamians gambling in casinos.
The decision to keep Bahamians from gambling in casinos is the government’s continuation of a controversial and discriminatory decades-old policy.
Wilchcombe said yesterday the policy has served us well and it would need to be carefully examined before any changes are made because there are serious social and economic considerations.
“We have always restricted Bahamians from participating in the gaming activity at our casinos and it was in fact the best compromise for a tourism destination and a country that has a strong opposition from Bahamians participating, particularly the church,” he said, referring to the initial decision on casino gambling several decades ago.
“Way back then, it was a happy compromise and I think that it has proven to be beneficial for the country and it has not hurt The Bahamas.
“We have been able to build an economy without income tax, etc. and it’s really because of our progressive tourism industry, one which included gaming.”
Wilchcombe also rightly pointed to the need and desire for the gaming aspect of tourism to be more competitive — thus the need for the Gaming Bill.
Anyone who takes offense to this bill ought to take that up with their government — not the holders of casino licenses who have for years been working with the government (the former administration included) to effect these necessary reforms for a more competitive gaming industry.
In a paper outlining recommendations for reforms, casino licensees note that in recent years, casino gaming has expanded worldwide.
To stay competitive, the largest jurisdictions have been forced to update their regulations to accommodate shifting consumer tastes, technology and potential sources of new tax revenues, the document points out.
It adds that Nevada, Macau, Singapore, New Jersey and the U.S. Gulf Coast states have structured their laws to reflect recent developments.
Casino operators are hoping the reforms outlined in the Gaming Bill would drive gaming revenues and create a sustainable competitive advantage.
They made 14 recommendations to the government in a document titled “Guide to modernization of casino regulations in The Bahamas”.
One of the recommendations calls for segmented VIP gaming suites and salons. It would allow enclosed gaming rooms to be located anywhere on the resort campus of a licensed casino.
Other recommendations include credit card payments for chips and duty free exemption for gaming equipment and interactive/mobile gaming.
The licensees also proposed the impostion of an entry level for permanent residents and work permit holders.
The document notes that in Singapore, residents must buy a daily pass for US$100 or yearly pass for US$2,000 for casino entry, limiting access to those with financial means.
Wilchcombe said without critical reforms, the gaming sector would lose ground.
A separate but very closely related issue involves the web shop industry, which is reportedly suffering under a threat of raids.
Bahamian citizens must continue to demand an end to discrimination on gaming.
Had the referendum passed on January 28, one assumes the government would have been well on its way in structuring a properly regulated web shop sector.
But Bahamian citizens would still have been barred from casino gambling.
The absence of that question from the ballot is one reason some people gave for voting against the regularization and taxation of web shops and the establishment of a national lottery.
It is also the reason some people gave for staying away from the polls altogether. Voter turnout in fact was less than 50 percent.
Prime Minister Perry Christie has promised that while the casino question was not on the January 28 ballot, it would be a question on the ballot of a promised constitutional referendum if the Constitutional Commission recommends that it be addressed.
It would be unfortunate if the discriminatory nature of the bill derails the industry’s push toward modernization and reform.
But the failed referendum should not be taken as a true reflection of the views of the electorate on gambling.
Had the government taken its time and addressed gambling for Bahamians in its totality and in a clear process where adequate information was provided, it might have avoided anger and confusion over this very necessary step it is taking for casino owners.
Bahamian businessespeople who have for years been operating web shops now feel like second-class citizens, as do Bahamians who are being told about the provision that would provide for work permit holders and permanent residents to take part in an industry they have been told to keep out.
Wilchcombe has said the Cabinet will review the bill tomorrow.
Perhaps it would also examine why so many people have reacted so strongly against it.
April 29, 2013