Anxious Bahamians eager to hear the details of the government’s upcoming gambling referendum won’t have to wait too long.
The Christie administration has promised to hold a referendum before the end of the year – one that would give Bahamians an opportunity to decide whether or not they want gambling legalised.
With scores of illegal numbers houses operating throughout the country as web cafés Bahamians have repeatedly called on the government to either crackdown on operators or legalise the practice.
During an interview in front of the Cabinet Office in downtown Nassau yesterday, Prime Minister Perry Christie yesterday confirmed that he and his Cabinet colleagues are currently discussing how things will play out.
“Everything is going to move very quickly in terms of the process. I’m hoping to be communicating with the country in a short time from now,” he said.
“There are some major issues that I am wrestling with [regarding] the legitimacy and making it a legal enterprise in The Bahamas with the consultants and I think I’m about ready to communicate to the Bahamian public.”
The government hired consultants from the UK to assess gaming in the country and advise it on the best way to move forward with establishing legalised gaming in the jurisdiction.
When asked if his government would release draft regulations on how web shops could operate prior to the referendum taking place Mr. Christie said “You could see a draft now, but I don’t think it’s entirely relevant.”
“Work has been done. What has happened is that web shops have become much more sophisticated in their offerings to the Bahamian public. We’ve had consultants who have begun the process of an in-depth examination of their operations and so the challenge for us is to work towards ensuring that we have the right regulations in place,” he said.
“But before we go and do all of those things we have to first determine whether Bahamians agree with its legalisation. So, the referendum will be the final feature of moving forward. The only question left now is to agree on the formulation of the question. I have a number of possible questions that we will put to the electorate. There will be hopefully one question, which will amount to ‘do you agree’ or ‘disagree’.”
The prime minister was also asked whether a lottery component would still be included in the referendum.
“The question has come up and that’s what is being debated now. I’ve indicated that I put it on there and had it in the Speech for the Throne, so I might continue with it. But, most certainly the emphasis is on the operations as they exist in The Bahamas today,” he said.
The gambling issue has created a firestorm of controversy.
Many church leaders have come out against legalising the numbers practice; however, some pastors say they are not opposed to it.
The Bahamas Christian Council (BCC) has said it is “diametrically opposed” to gambling, however, Mt. Calvary Baptist Pastor Dr. Philip McPhee believes there are benefits to be derived from its legalisation.
Baptist Bishop Simeon Hall said rather than campaigning against the referendum church leaders should attempt to change the minds of their own members who gamble.
Catholic Archbishop Patrick Pinder said recently that The Bahamas is confronting a “cultural crisis” as thousands of Bahamians are taking part in illegal gambling every day, negating many of the values that they should dear, such as planning, saving and working hard.
An estimated 130,000 people hold illegal numbers accounts.
There are four main local number houses: FML, Asue Draw, NWS and Island Luck.
There are about eight smaller operators.
Prime Minister Christie was asked what his government plans to do if Bahamians vote against the referendum.
“That’s one of the disadvantages of losing a referendum that the Bahamian people would have spoken that it is an illegal activity and should remain so. I think the proliferation has come about because people suspect that it’s going to be made legal and so new entrants have come into the business,” he said.
“The difficulty is that not everybody is going to be licenced. There is going to be some very stringent requirements for licencing in this matter if it gets that far with significant requirements to meet. It’s going to be no different to what happens in the casino business. You will have to meet some very stringent requirements when it comes down to your capacity to conduct a business of that kind. It’s going to be very stringently enforced, because the one thing that will become unmistakably clear there is a necessity to regulate that business and not leave it unattended.”
Archbishop Pinder said Bahamians need to know exactly what happens in web shops if they are to make informed decisions in the referendum.
Mr. Christie said that will happen.
“I am preparing now to speak definitively on this subject, that is, exactly what the Bahamian public has to know prior to voting, including the question that they’ll be asked on the date of the referendum,” he said.
When asked for his government’s stance on gambling the prime minister said, “We don’t have a horse in the race.”