Taking it to the peopleCasino question to be absent from ballot, but heavy considerations loomBy Candia DamesGuardian News Editorcandia@nasguard.com 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.Historical perspectiveGambling 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’.
read more: 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,” ...says Prime Minister Perry Christie