|Is the PLP playing a numbers game?|
Published: Aug 21, 2012
There is considerable discussion on a national lottery and whether the numbers business should be legalized. Yet, a compelling issue has been given short shrift. It concerns whether most of the proceeds from this lucrative trade will be used for public purpose or private gain.
Bahamas Information Services (BIS) issued a story last week on Prime Minister Perry Christie’s communication to the House of Assembly, confirming the government’s intention “to hold a referendum on the issue of a national lottery and/or web cafes.”
He was quoted as advising: “I wish to confirm that it is my government’s intention to proceed with a referendum on the issue of a national lottery and/or web cafes as soon as practicable following the anticipated by-election in North Abaco later this year.”
The story noted: “The referendum will seek to ascertain whether a national lottery should be instituted and/or whether the popular web cafes or web shops be legalized, regulated, licensed and taxed.
“He [Mr. Christie] also reiterated that the government would maintain a position of complete neutrality on the referendum issues: ‘We will not campaign for, nor will we encourage the adoption of, either a yes or no position on any of the referendum issues’.”
The communication obscured more than it revealed. Given that this is a debate on the numbers business it is ironically fitting that the government’s statements seem less like a serious policy discussion and more like a confidence or shell game.
There is this troubling paragraph in the BIS story: “He [Mr. Christie] also reiterated that the government would maintain a position of complete neutrality on the referendum issues: ‘We will not campaign for, nor will we encourage the adoption of, either a yes or no position on any of the referendum issues’.” This is not good enough. The prime minister will have to say more. Incidentally, what is “complete neutrality”? Is there an incomplete neutrality on this issue of which we should be aware?
Neutrality by the government on how Bahamians vote in the referendum is understandable. But notice the wording: “referendum issues”. There are indeed related issues on which the government will have to take a stand. These are compelling issues of public policy and social ethics which will not tolerate neutrality or studied indifference.
Two weeks ago, Christie lent his support to erecting a bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Bimini, commemorating the latter’s visits to the island where he reportedly drafted parts of his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, and a 1968 speech to sanitation workers before his assassination.
Those speeches and Dr. King’s broader mission were driven by a progressive spirit rooted in the quest for social, distributive and economic justice. He loathed neutrality on issues which demanded a stance by those in positions of power. For him, power had to be directed to good purpose.
The question of who maintains the greater bulk of the proceeds from a national lottery is a definitive issue. It will mark genuine progressives from paper progressives. It will reveal whether the vestigial rump of the progressive movement, on life support in the PLP, is so anaesthetized by the opiate of power that it is ready to give up the ghost. It will tell us whether Perry Christie’s PLP intends to put the majority of Bahamians first or only selected Bahamians.
Given the longstanding bond between the PLP and powerful figures in the numbers business, including one who served as the party’s treasurer, many are watching to see how the party proceeds. Relatedly, Christie spoke recently of the urgency of campaign finance laws.
Before voting, Bahamians must demand answers from the government on a core of vital issues. Christie spoke of big ideas in the election campaign. What is his big idea on the apportionment of proceeds from a lottery?
There are various models for lotteries, some more progressive or regressive in terms of how they are run, who runs them, how they are taxed and the allotment of proceeds. The United Kingdom has a state-franchised national lottery operated under private licence and regulated by the National Lottery Commission.
In descending order of how proceeds are allotted, the majority goes to a prize fund, the next largest amount to the Big Lottery Fund supporting “good causes”, followed by a duty that goes directly to the government. The remainder, in equal portion, goes to retailers as a commission, and the private operator receives a sum to cover operating costs, and as a profit.
For those uncomfortable on ethical, policy or pragmatic grounds about the government running a national lottery, the UK model is instructive. Still, the model one chooses will reveal one’s values, commitments and policy leanings. Fundamentally, it reveals the purpose of a national lottery and one’s views on wealth distribution, tax policy, economic justice and the common good.
Say it was the 1960s, before majority rule, and the white oligarchy represented by the United Bahamian Party (UBP) proposed a plebiscite on the question of a national lottery, with the greater amount of the proceeds going to private operators, and the government deciding who would be granted licences.
What would the PLP of that era, including members of the National Committee for Positive Action (NCPA), a progressive caucus within the party, say about such a proposal? What might some of those in the university and college student group, Unicol, later renamed Unicomm, say of such a proposal?
What would the progressive movement of what Christie has described as “the golden age of idealism and opportunity” say about a scheme involving a mass Robin-Hood-in-reverse redistribution of wealth from poor black Kate and Ken and their children into the coffers of a few?
With a referendum on the horizon, such fundamental questions are before us. For many it is a clear choice. Those still committed to the progressive movement and those inspired by the movement, share a dream partially fulfilled, yet incomplete.
Imagine a lottery system in which tens of millions annually and hundreds of millions over several years are directed towards the still incomplete mission of lifting up the poor, educating the youth, and providing hope for many thousands.
Still, such a system would be decidedly more beneficial to the common good than legalizing a jackpot windfall for a few. Such a system would also return more money to poor and lower income Bahamians who regularly play the lottery.
Perry Christie, afforded a second chance as prime minister, has a big and defining decision to make. He can reaffirm some of the core values of the progressive movement by acting for the greater good. Or he can betray that movement by enabling the legalization of a system in which a precious few reap a jackpot a day.