Better for whom?
Guardian News Editor
Published: Oct 21, 2013
It has long been better in The Bahamas, so we are told.
But with local casino operators finally succeeding in getting long-awaited legislation before Parliament, web shop operators are left feeling like second-class citizens in their own country.
The tabling last Wednesday of the Gaming Bill 2013 will likely renew the prickly and often heated debate over gambling in The Bahamas.
Under the bill, the double standard in the gaming industry would remain: Visitors are permitted to gamble legally; Bahamians are not.
Casino operators would be permitted to conduct mobile gaming in any area of their resort. They would also be permitted to engage in Internet gaming — something web shop owners currently engage in but are fighting a legal battle over.
Months after the failed January 28 referendum, gambling continues to be one of the most divisive and unnecessarily distracting issues in The Bahamas.
To be clear, no one should blame the holders of casino licenses for pushing for reforms. Those reforms are essential and long overdue to create a more competitive gaming industry.
In a paper outlining recommendations for reforms, casino licensees note that in recent years, casino gaming has expanded worldwide.
To stay competitive, the largest jurisdictions have been forced to update their regulations to accommodate shifting consumer tastes, technology and potential sources of new tax revenues.
Referring to the bill that has been tabled, Robert ‘Sandy’ Sands, senior vice president of administration and external affairs at Baha Mar, told National Review, “It represents the overwhelming majority of the recommendations submitted by the casino committee.
“This is excellent news. We congratulate the government in getting the bill to Parliament.”
Casino operators are hoping the reforms outlined in the gaming bill would drive gaming revenues and create a sustainable competitive advantage.
They made 14 recommendations to the government in a document titled “Guide to modernization of casino regulations in The Bahamas”.
One of the recommendations calls for segmented VIP gaming suites and salons. It would allow enclosed gaming rooms to be located anywhere on the resort campus of a licensed casino.
Other recommendations include credit card payments for chips and duty free exemption for gaming equipment and interactive/mobile gaming.
The licensees also proposed the imposition of an entry levy for permanent residents and work permit holders.
The document notes that in Singapore, residents must buy a daily pass for US$100 or yearly pass for US$2,000 for casino entry, limiting access to those with financial means.
Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe, who has responsibility for gaming, has said without critical reforms, the gaming sector would lose ground.
After The Nassau Guardian made the last draft of the bill public in April, it sparked outrage among some Bahamians.
The bill in its previous form would have allowed work permit holders and permanent residents to gamble legally in The Bahamas.
In response to public angst over that revelation, the government revised the bill and eliminated that controversial provision.
As it regards who would be allowed to gamble legally in The Bahamas, the government has decided to allow the status quo to remain — rejecting at least one recommendation made by the casino committee, which was formed by the holders of casino licenses to push for reform of the sector.
The bill that was tabled last week prohibits gaming for any person who is ordinarily resident in The Bahamas; is the holder of a permanent residence certificate; is the holder of a work permit or is the spouse of any of those people.
Asked whether the committee is disappointed that the government has now rejected its recommendation for permanent residents and work permit holders to gamble in The Bahamas, Sands said, “I don’t think we are disappointed.
“Those matters that have been eliminated from these current recommendations can be submitted at a later time and we are happy that the government was able to separate those matters in an effort not to delay the tabling of the bill.”
But while the government has decided to eliminate the provision that would have allowed permanent residents and work permit holders to gamble here legally, it will likely still face strong criticisms in some circles.
The government has made it clear that it is not now prepared to deal with the question of Bahamians being able to gamble legally in casinos, although the bill does not appear to ban Bahamians who are not ordinarily resident in The Bahamas.
Prime Minister Perry Christie hinted at this change some weeks back, suggesting that people like his daughter, Alexandria, who live outside The Bahamas, should not be prohibited from gambling in casinos when they visit the country.
The decision to keep Bahamians from gambling in casinos is the government’s continuation of a controversial and discriminatory and decades-old policy.
Wilchcombe previously told Guardian National Review that the policy has served us well and it would need to be carefully examined before any changes are made because there are serious social and economic considerations.
“We have always restricted Bahamians from participating in the gaming activity at our casinos and it was in fact the best compromise for a tourism destination and a country that has a strong opposition from Bahamians participating, particularly the church,” he said, referring to the initial decision on casino gambling several decades ago.
“Way back then, it was a happy compromise, and I think that it has proven to be beneficial for the country, and it has not hurt The Bahamas.
“We have been able to build an economy without income tax, etc. and it’s really because of our progressive tourism industry, one which included gaming.”
Chairman of the Constitutional Review Commission Sean McWeeney noted in July after presenting the group’s report to the prime minister that politicians had attempted to “pass the buck” to the commission on the question of casino gambling.
McWeeney pointed out that a “simple” amendment to the Lotteries and Gaming Act would make it legal for Bahamians to gamble in casinos or engage in any form of gambling in The Bahamas.
At the time, he told us, “The complaint out there [is] that Bahamians aren’t allowed to gamble, and we think the politicians out there have been a bit disingenuous by treating this as a constitutional issue.
“I think this is their way of passing the buck and basically we have lobbed the ball back.”
While the commission has thrown the issue back at the government, the government has decided it is not now prepared to do away with the gambling prohibition.
Deciding instead to reverse its position on allowing permanent residents and work permit holders to gamble, may not be enough to appease those Bahamians who believe the discriminatory provision that blocks them from gambling in casinos should be eliminated.
Some pundits have opined that one of the reasons for the failure of the gambling referendum in January was that many people felt insulted that the government refused to address the casino gambling issue.
The absence of that question from the ballot is one of the reasons some people gave for voting against the regularization and taxation of web shops and the establishment of a national lottery.
It is also the reason some people gave for staying away from the polls altogether. Voter turnout was below 50 percent.
A majority of people who cast ballots, voted against those questions.
The result was that web shop operators faced the immediate threat of a shutdown.
Fearing a disruption of their businesses, they raced to court, contending there is no law preventing them from engaging in the activities they engage in.
Attorney Wayne Munroe, who represents some of those operators, said this discriminates against web shop owners engaged in these forms of gaming.
Munroe said the bill is a “wholesale slap in the face” for Bahamian businesspeople engaged in the gaming industry.
“I started to have a look at [the bill], and quickly I can tell that again it is an instance of it being better in The Bahamas for foreign nationals and foreign businesses as opposed to Bahamians because here it is you have Bahamians who are able to be licensed elsewhere in the world to do something that they are not permitted [to do here] if this bill goes through,” he said.
“It just shows successive governments talk about foreign direct investments as a way of saving us, so to speak, when this is a clear example where you have an industry that would be driven by Bahamians, significantly driven by Bahamians of a negro persuasion, and a government seems to be hell bent on not taking up the ability to create an ownership class of an industry.
“And it would be the only industry that would be dominated by one, native Bahamians, and two, colored native Bahamians.”
Munroe said that in The Bahamas, the priority has long been the foreigner.
“We’ve had a campaign from back in the ‘70s that it’s better in The Bahamas for them, and the fact that it continues to happen is the result of the Bahamian electorate permitting it,” he added.
“It is hypocritical to say that something that people would say shouldn’t be done by Bahamian businessmen can be done by foreign businessmen, otherwise, there is no principled position.”
Munroe said he will consider what changes the passage of the bill could bring to the dynamics of the ongoing litigation.
While web shop owners are left to duke it out in court, casino owners expect to become more competitive after the new law is passed.
For them, the pot is being sweetened after years of persistent lobbying.
That is a sure sign that in The Bahamas, it is better — just not always better for the Bahamian.