Communication to the Honourable House of Assembly By
Dr. the Hon. Hubert A. Minnis, M.P. for Killarney
14th November, 2012
Mr. Speaker, I rise in order to make a Communication to this Honourable House on a matter of critical National Importance, namely the Government’s proposed Referendum on Web-shops.
I wish to congratulate the Government upon having bowed to the overwhelming concerns of ordinary Bahamians that the timing of the proposed Referendum was too rushed, and that the legal right of the Government to hold a non-Constitutional Referendum had to be addressed by legislation before such a Referendum could be lawfully held.
I also wish to congratulate the Government upon having, in one respect, moved closer to the position of the former Free National Movement administration, which had also proposed and drafted legislation for a National Lottery, which question would have been ‘put to the People’ for approval in a Referendum.
The Rt.Hon. Prime Minister will now have to explain the inherent inconsistency between a National Lottery, which is ordinarily owned and run by the Government, and privately-owned web cafes. Surely they will not be able to sell competing numbers from foreign lotteries? And what will be the Government’s position on possibly illegal Internet casino gambling, under International Law? No doubt the Government will be able to answer these questions as persuasively and reliably as it has dealt with the issue of the legality of a non-constitutional Referendum prior to today.
In any event, I wish to assure the Rt. Hon. Member for Centreville that the position of the Official Opposition in this emerging National Debate is consistent and has always been consistent, and principled! The position of the Free National Government was clearly that the question of any change in the gambling laws would be put to a vote in a Referendum. It has always been our policy in government, and now in opposition, that there should be a consistent insistence upon due and appropriate public consultations in advance of any vote, that there should be full and frank disclosure of exactly what the government would do in the event of a “Yes” vote, and that ordinary Bahamians should have as much information as possible in advance of them being advised to make any decision on the matter.
The events and contradictory public pronouncements of the Rt. Hon. Prime Minister over the past several weeks fell woefully short of the standards that an FNM Government would have demanded of itself; and which leadership deficit compelled me to publicly take issue with the faulty legal process proposed by the Government, the lack of any reliable or impartial information on critical issues such as Fairness, Due Diligence, Ownership and full public disclosure of all relevant issues.
Mr. Speaker, the issues of Fairness, Due Diligence, Ownership and Full Disclosure are of critical National importance as they go directly towards answering the important and overriding question: “exactly what are the Bahamian People voting for, or against?”
Fairness has become a very pressing concern due to the announcement by the Rt. Hon. Member for Centreville that, of the eight established web shop operations, only “two or three” would eventually be licensed. Operators would naturally be concerned to know exactly what the fair, transparent and objective standards would be in determining whose businesses would be permitted to continue and whose businesses would be forcibly closed down. Hence the Opposition requested and the Bahamian People would expect that those fair, transparent and objective standards, to be contained in subsidiary legislation, would be published well in advance of any vote on the matter.
Further, the Government should consider whether or not a better course of action would be to design a more inclusive legal regime which would not be open to any criticism or any possible suggestion of favouritism and special treatment for some, but not others. You see, Mr. Speaker, ordinary Bahamians would want to be assured that they or their children would receive the same, fair, transparent and objective considerations as others who now appear, rightly or wrongly, to be in a more privileged position.
Due Diligence is a very important matter since the advent of the Internet has enabled not only complex Internet based Casino gambling operations and cross-border money flows, but also, with the use of ATM machines and the performance of quasi-banking operations in virtually every major web shop, raise very serious issues related to anti-money laundering of the proceeds of crime and the potential abuse of such systems by criminals in The Bahamas or terrorists abroad. The government needs to provide carefully considered information as to exactly how it proposes to prevent money laundering of the proceeds of crime and/or any other criminal abuse of the quasi-banking facilities of web shops.
Mr. Speaker, the Government throughout its pronouncements over the past several weeks has seemingly assumed that the ownership of web shops would remain in private hands. In this apparent presumption the Government has failed to address the long-established and entrenched Public Policy first enunciated in 1973, established with the passage of the Hotel Corporation Act in 1974, and brought into full legal force and effect in 1978 with the amendment of the Lotteries & Gaming Act, which policy and law mandates (Section 33 of the Lotteries Act) that “the Hotel Corporation of The Bahamas shall be the only person entitled to the grant of a licence… to carry on the business of gaming on any premises.” Existing casino operators are mere managers on behalf of the Government.
We note that the Government has moved an amendment to the Constitutional Referendum Act, but it must be said that merely amending the Law to allow a non-constitutional Referendum is not enough to surmount the legal challenge posed by an existing law which specifically prohibits private licences. Again, the Government appears to be hurriedly rushing through a process without having fully considered all the legal ramifications. We trust, Mr. Speaker, that this Government is not about to again embark on another bungled up process which is tripped up by un-considered legal obstacles.
The question of who will own these legalized gambling businesses is a critical one, since ordinary Bahamians should be fully informed of whether they are being asked to vote to grant tens of millions, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars each year in legalized profits to go to a small handful of people. The question of whether the Government will pursue an “All for the few” policy, perhaps as a reward for past and possibly future financial political donations, must be answered to the comfort of the Bahamian People.
This is important because of the fact that it is an inescapable fact that gambling is an activity which is dependent upon human frailties, the consequences of which usually have to be borne by the wider society. Why should the few retain perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in windfall profits, while the wider society is left to pick up the costs associated with generating these large profits for private owners? Surely Bahamians should be given the opportunity to determine this question, as well; namely, who should be the ultimate owner or owners of such businesses. This issue is all the more important now in light of the Government’s expressed intention, after some flip-flopping, to go ahead with proposals for a National Lottery. Who will own that?
Mr. Speaker, the need for full disclosure of the intentions of the Government in this matter is paramount. Full disclosure of those who may have made monetary donations to political Parties is also important. I can unequivocally state that the Free National Movement as an organization did not accept any donations of money from any web shop owners. I cannot speak for individual candidates. But the Policy of the Free National Movement on this matter was inflexible, that as an organization we would not solicit, or accept any political donations from web shops. And we did not. Mr. Speaker, we would confidently expect the same forthrightness from the Governing Party. It is critically important that it is made abundantly clear to every Bahamian that whatever the Government proposes to do in connection with web shops, it does so with clean hands.
Mr. Speaker, the concern of my Party is to ensure that the process is legally correct and respectfully addresses the concerns of Bahamians, and that these overriding issues of fairness, due diligence, ownership and full disclosure are appropriately dealt with going forward.