FNM Leader’s Contribution in Parliament on Constitutional Referendum Act

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Dr. Hubert Minnis - Leader of the Opposition

Nassau, Bahamas – Contribution to the House of Assembly of Dr. The Honourable Hubert A. Minnis, MP and the Leader of the Free National Movement on the Amendment the Constitutional Referendum Act to Provide a Framework for the Conduct of a Constitutional Referendum delivered on November 22nd, 2012:

Mr. Speaker, thank you for allowing the official opposition to make a contribution as well as some constructive criticisms as we debate this bill for an act to amend the constitutional referendum act to provide for a framework for the conduct of a constitutional referendum, or any other referendum.

This area of our constitution, laws and regulations, must be approached carefully before making any changes. For this area of our parliamentary democracy that we debate today, has to do with how elections are held and how voting takes place in this country.

Mr. Speaker this is not a trivial matter but one that is quite serious and requires the utmost caution.

Firstly, it is the constitution of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas that provides for the holding of elections and for the holding of a constitutional referendum. The constitution does not allow for the holding of a non-constitutional referendum or any other referendum. The constitution only empowers the government to hold a constitutional referendum – a referendum to change the constitution. Our founding fathers who crafted our constitution had the foresight and wisdom to prohibit the holding of any other referendum – as only a constitutional referendum is allowed.
The government cannot come to this honorable place now to pass a law to allow for the conduct of a non-constitutional referendum or any other referendum, when the constitution makes it clear that the only kind of referendum the government can conduct is a constitutional referendum. To put it simply, if the government wants to conduct a non-constitutional referendum or any other referendum, the government must first change the constitution.

Mr. Speaker,
The way we properly go about changing the constitution is the way former Prime Minister Ingraham tried to do it in 2002 when the then Opposition voted Yes in this place then changed in its mind on the outside.
Secondly, Mr. Speaker, if one takes the time to read and understand this bill that is before us today, one will see that the government is proposing a new sub section to the principal act which says, “The Minister Responsible for Parliamentary Registration and Elections may make regulations for the modification of the Parliamentary Elections Act, including omissions from, additions to and amendments to the said Act.

Although this practice of amending substantive Laws in other Acts of Parliament can be done easily in Britain which is not subject to a written Constitution like the Bahamas, it is a practice which should be avoided. The reason is that in Britain, as they say, Parliament is Sovereign’, but in The Bahamas, Parliament is Sovereign under the Constitution. It is out of respect for the Sovereignty of the Bahamian Constitution, that the existing Act places the power to issue Regulations to amend the election law to allow for the holding of a Referendum in the hand of the Governor General, and not a politician.

This is unconstitutional and dangerous for the Minister to be given the power to make regulations that ignore the law and give him the power to amend the law unilaterally, without a vote of this House. The advice given to the government in the drafting of this bill was ill-advised. This bill as presently drafted seeks to usurp the constitutional authority of Parliament and puts this authority in the hands of one Minister. Under the existing Act the Governor General has already made the necessary Regulations to permit the holding of a Referendum.

In bringing this amending Bill this PLP is seeking to cannibalize a Law which was passed to fulfill a specific Constitutional purpose, so they can use the same Act or Law to perform a non-Constitutional function. This is an abuse of Parliament.

In 2002 when the Ingraham administration was doing it right, it was the Member for Centreville, back then Leader of the Opposition and Member for Farm Road, indeed the current Prime Minister who now proudly sits on that other side, who uttered these words. Words that are clear in their meaning, words that told Ingraham to stop, review, cancel.

“The Bahamian people were simply saying that if these proposals are to be advanced, they must be advanced properly and carefully. The people, by voting No, were saying that if you try to rush the process, you not only deny sufficient time for public education and discussion but you also end up with a great many errors and flaws which only serve to complicate matters even further. This is an important lesson for this Government and all future Governments of The Bahamas.”

These words are not my words, they’re your words Mr. Prime Minister, and Mr. Speaker permit me to quote and table for all to see and hear these brilliant words spoken shortly after he had voted yes, then eloquently changed these words.

Therefore Mr. Speaker, I reiterate and fully endorse the aforementioned words of the Member for Centerville and remind him that though his own words of advice to the then Prime Minister is now a bitter pill for him to swallow, I say to the Member for Centerville this medicine is good for you…listen to your own advice.

We are very concerned about the conduct of this non-constitutional referendum. There are many points of serious concern, but let us just look at one point. What measures are being put in place to prohibit persons now operating web shops from using their on-line facilities to offer inducements to the citizenry for their yes vote.

When we do not have proper safeguards in place to govern free and fair voting we run the risk of jeopardizing our democracy. This is a matter of grave concern to us and should be one to all Bahamians. What is to stop the web shops from crediting monies to account holders to buy the yes vote.

Oh Mr. Speaker, allow me to answer that question…nothing. Nothing is in place to stop the web shop owners from paying their customers what amounts to a monetary bribe to encourage the vote in their favor, which opens an even bigger concern. What is to stop the web shop owners from using this same mechanism to influence votes not only in constitutional and non-constitutional referendum but in general elections.

We cannot allow our long standing parliamentary democracy of almost 300 years to be tarnished in such a way that we become the laughing stock of the free world, for making such an irreversible and ill-advised decision to play around with our constitution.

Our forefathers and mothers of the suffrage movement bared their souls, endangered their lives and fought to craft the Bahamas of today, it is on their backs we stand, we cannot allow their sacrifices to be eroded in this manner. They fought for free and fair elections we cannot revert to a system where a few govern the masses. We cannot allow any special interest group to buy or influence our vote and determine the fate of our country.

What is even more egregious is that we are now being reliably informed that certain groups are now forming to take control of the proposed national lottery and web shop licenses. Mr. Prime Minister, be careful.

You are walking on the edge of history. This is strike two, sir. You know the consequences of strike three.

Mr. Speaker, I rise to contribute to this most timely and critical debate concerning a matter that has gripped our nation. The Government has tabled an amendment to change the law regarding gambling, further it will be asking the Bahamian people to vote on the proposed referendum on the legalization of web shop operations in The Bahamas and national lottery.

Mr. Speaker, it is very difficult for one to decide on the legalization of an entity, that is voting ‘yes’ or voting ‘no’, when one does not have a clear and concise understanding of the matters before them as well as the actual operations of these web shops. Many Bahamians particularly those who do not engage in this venture, have no idea of what transpires in these web facilities.

It is hereby the position of the opposition party to urge the governing party show how much you “believe in Bahamians” by believing in their ability to make informed decisions on matters of national interest. The opposition urge the government to immediately establish a national commission on gambling to properly research, consult and then report to all Bahamians on gambling, both the present impact of illegal gambling, and the likely impact of legal gambling, as well. You will hear Mr. Speaker as I move through my contribution more details on what we feel the commission should address.

In the course of the past few weeks, we have listened and consulted many facets of our society to determine not only how people felt about the issue but more importantly, the affect it will have on our society. This gambling issue is so important to our nation that we reviewed official documentation outlining how other governments handled these matters and the decisions they made to protect their citizenry, as all responsible governments do.

Mr. Speaker after the aforementioned consultations and reviews, we are at a point of grave concern – concern of the apparent rush by the Government to bully the Bahamian people into voting on a matter for which information is sketchy at best. The National Commission on Gambling should address this major flaw in the government’s approach to presenting this change to the people.

There is grave concern that there are inherent problems with web shop gambling today, some of which Mr. Speaker, I will outline.

The Member for Centerville announced that not all operators would be licensed but only a few who were deemed to be “experienced” and persons of “integrity”, He has not said how this will be decided. Is the Member for Centerville saying that the current operators who are admittingly breaking the law of the Bahamas are the ones qualified due to their experience and expertise in operating an illegal venture.

What message will be sent to the youth of the nation about working hard for a living and contributing honestly to society and the economic structure of our country.

What message will be sent to parents who sacrifice to send their children to school and university to become law abiding, respectful individuals, can they when they return home apply for this type of license or because they have no experience in breaking the law through operating an illegal gambling operation, will they find that they will not be granted such licence, because they are not “experienced”?

To realize the concerns raised one must know what these web shops do. Yes, they operate a number business – a business where individuals can place bets on numbers drawn. They also operate casino type machines, where individuals can “spin” and place bets on slot type internet machines. Some operate a raffle, where patrons can win a house, cars and other cash rewards. Note, Mr. Speaker, for a church to operate a raffle they must obtain a license to do so but not the illegal entity they operate within their own laws.

A major concern of these entities is the underground banking transactions that they perform. Anyone including criminals, can deposit money in their ATMs as a means to launder the funds. With the cleaning of money gained through illegal means like prostitution, drugs, human smuggling, child pornography and terrorism – the illegal banking system operated by these web shops open a “pandora’s box”.

Persons operating in these illegal activities cannot deposit their money in the traditional banking system based on international banking rules.

Mr. Speaker, we had an opportunity to speak with some individuals that gamble and surprisingly many of them are concerned about the addictive nature of this industry. They know firsthand how easy it is to spin your entire pay check away or spend your last 25 cents on numbers.

This addictive nature of gambling is very concerning as the Member for Centerville indirectly admitted that the nation will be exposed to addiction when he said the web shops will make an annual contribution for rehabilitation. Honorable member are you knowingly setting your people up for failure.

Remember the alcohol revolution where bars were introduced to every street corner in the ‘over the hill’ areas, it was the PLP government that recognized the problem and it introduced a moratorium, Mr. Speaker we unfortunately are still facing the problem of this addiction today.
Just look around. It appears that gambling is becoming the new “opiate of the masses” as there are web shops on virtually every street corner and in every shopping plaza in New Providence.

If the web shops will make a contribution to rehabilitation, what would the States’ contribution be, the State would have to moved millions from Consolidated Funds to fund rehabilitation therefore moving funds from education and social services.

The Member for Centerville admitted that the web shops will make contributions to the formation of the regulation – how can you ask the rat to make a contribution to the formation of his own trap.

Mr. Speaker, one must ponder on why now, why the rush…of all the social and economic challenges we face, why is the side opposite not addressing those issues with such zeal.
What about the level of unemployment plaguing our country? – Remember you believe in Bahamians.

What about the equality of women? Are these issues being addressed, are they less important?

What about the high cost of electricity? – remember the people were promised lower bills.

More recently, what about the hurricane relief, were they only photo opportunities and news bites? Have the farmers received compensation or assistance? Have the elderly issues been addressed?

So why the rush and importance placed on gambling?

Is it based on promised made to campaign contributors?

Is it payback to ensure that the funding is available for future elections?

As the Member for Bain & Grants Town said at the funeral service for the late Charles Maynard, regardless to how great your programmes maybe – money wins elections.

This is a time to review election reform to ensure our democracy remains at a high standard, yet gambling is more important than the future of a democratic system.

Our recommendation is that the government do right by the people of the Bahamas, stop the underground banking. Delay the referendum and establish a National Consultative Committee on Gambling so the Bahamian people can be arms with the facts to determine their fates.

And so Mr. Speaker as I take my seat, I wrap myself in the words of the then leader of the opposition and Member for Farm Road,……

“The Bahamian people were simply saying that if these proposals are to be advanced, they must be advanced properly and carefully. The people, by voting No, were saying that if you try to rush the process, you not only deny sufficient time for public education and discussion but you also end up with a great many errors and flaws which only serve to complicate matters even further. This is an important lesson for this Government and all future Governments of The Bahamas.”

Mr. Speaker we have a duty as the leaders of this country not to succumb to desperate emotions of the few at the expense of the many of this great nation. We who sit in this place, we have a sacred duty to man the ship of state even in perilous waters, in the good times and in the bad times. This ship of state ought not be wrecked. We must not allow This ship of state to be guided by pirates and buccaneers.

Mr. Speaker, we must get it right first. Until we get it right, we on this side do not know… so we will vote No. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.