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Columns : The New Bahamian - Joseph Gaskins Last Updated: Feb 6, 2017 - 2:32:04 PM

The Real Story: The Whats and Whys of the Gaming Referendum
By Joseph Gaskins
Feb 1, 2013 - 6:36:13 AM

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I’m not sure anyone could have predicted the outcome of this referendum on web-shops and a national lottery accurately. For most, it seemed an easy win for the “Vote Yes” campaign, given its attempt to drown the opposition in its considerable resources. Those who predicted a loss for number-bosses could not have anticipate how handily both questions were voted down. Before arguing the why of this embarrassing defeat for both the fairly new Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) government and the well-funded “Vote Yes” campaign, lets look at the what -- what happened last night?  

At press time the Tribune reported that a little over 40,000 votes were cast. This represented less than 50% of registered voters and at some polling stations voter turn out was as low as 30%. Today, ZNS News is reporting that over 70,000 voters participated in the referendum in total.  

Stephen Aranha, Chair of the School of Social Science and Professor of History at the College of the Bahamas, through his twitter account (@sbaranha), did some quick calculations using these latest numbers. The 71,000 voters who turned out for this referendum represented only 41% of registered voters and 30% of voting age Bahamians. The regularization of web-shop gaming was opposed by 61.8% of the 41% of registered voters casting ballots, while the establishment of a national lottery was rejected by 58.7%.  

To put things into perspective, the opposition to legalizing web-shops and establishing a national lottery represents a fraction of the electorate. If the voting register has remained relatively the same since the 2012 general election there are 172,000 registered voters in the Bahamas. Only 27% of registered voters opposed the legalizing of web-shops and smaller still, only 23% of registered voters opposed the establishment of a national lottery. The real story here is how small the “No Vote” campaign’s voting bloc was and the reality of poor voter turn out.  

As I listen to the media make sense of yesterdays results, I’m admittedly disappointed but not surprised. Many have reduced this entire event to a battle between the church and the numbers bosses, with the church slaying their giant opponent. Pundits are also missing the real story. Yes, the church led the “Vote No” campaign but this victory isn’t theirs.  

What we know about social issue campaigns is that those who feel most strongly about the issue at hand are more likely to turn out to vote, while those who feel they have no real interest typically stay at home. The last 20 years is replete with examples of this, whether we refer to the conservative Christian right in the United States organizing ballot initiatives around denying gays and lesbians the right to marry or pro-lifers hoping to limit the scope of Roe vs. Wade. Christians who felt a moral obligation to arrest the legalizing of gaming turned out to vote but they represent only a small fraction of the total electorate. Furthermore, it would ridiculous to conclude that everyone who voted no did so because of their religious belief.  

The truth is that the government gave Bahamians more than enough reasons to vote no or, as the numbers suggest, not vote at all. I want people to come to terms with the fact that many of those who opposed both questions did so not because of the church, but because they were discouraged, and even offended, by the way the government brought this issue to the people. What is most lamentable about the post-referendum punditry is that I think the anger of the Bahamian people is being lost in a discourse about the influence of the church, where the numbers do not reflect this narrative as accurate.  

In my opinion, people may have been more likely to vote yes, and more importantly, show up to the polls, if they were voting on ownership opportunities for all Bahamians in a regulated local gaming sector, as well as for casinos. Instead we were only given the option to remain consumers in the numbers industry, while the government worked to close off competition by making it clear they were limiting the granting of gaming license to only a select few -- those who could ante up a million dollar bond and who had previous experience in a presently illegal industry.  

I think Bahamians would have reacted positively to the chance to end the legal discrimination allowed by our constitution and made real by the Lotteries and Gaming act. The combination of these two pieces of legislation not only restrict the movement of Bahamians by prohibiting their participation in casino gambling but also forecloses on Bahamian’s ability to own a major sources of revenue in their own country.  

I would argue that Bahamians would’ve certainly felt more inclined to vote if the government mounted a campaign of education as they promised at the start of this long, arduous process.  

How do you expect people to vote on the legalizing of “web-shops” when no one could define, in legal terms, what web-shops are? Why was the College of the Bahamas not engaged by the government to conduct research on the social, psychological and economic effects of gaming in the Bahamas? Why was there no audit of an industry that has operated outside of the boundaries of law so that the Bahamian people could have a detailed and accurate picture of what exactly they were being asked to legalize? Where was the proposed legislation for voters to preview so that we knew what to expect after an affirmative vote? These were questions all posed publicly by various Bahamians but were left unanswered.  

Bahamians may have been more willing to vote for a national lottery if they had information on how it would operate, who would be in charge of its operation and if these people could be trusted to take on this task.  

With a bloated deficit, failed public projects, and an ever-growing list of scandals, confidence in the Bahamian government is at an all time low. Could we trust the government to establish a national lottery, especially when they didn’t want to consider it at first and when they have the nerve to appoint a chairman to a government corporation that allegedly owes that very same corporation hundreds of thousands of dollars? This certainly doesn’t inspire faith in the political powers that be.  

If the outcome of the 2012 general election was an indictment of the Ingraham administration, I think this referendum is similarly a challenge to the leadership of Perry Christie. The action of voters, and particularly those who abstained from voting, were symptomatic of a complete lack of confidence in how this referendum was brought to the people.  

Of course, there are those who are arguing that the Bahamian people did not make the right choice by defeating this referendum -- they let the good become the enemy of the perfect. Some suggest that I am giving the Bahamian electorate to much credit by arguing that people wanted more information or a less “awkward” process. Bahamians, for example, vote for the same parties every year, switching one out for the other when neither has fulfilled its obligation to the citizenry.  

The problem I have with these conclusions revolve around the notions of “choice” and “the good.” Really, what were our choices in this referendum? Vote for an industry many of us know nothing about only to have the government restrict who gets a “piece of the pie”? Where was the good? Saving the jobs of 4,000 web-shop workers despite this number being called into question by those who’ve calculated the income of workers based on the reported payroll?  

If, as Prime Minister Christie claimed in his communication to parliament on November 14, 2012, web-shops payrolls amount to $15 million this would mean that web-shop workers were making only $3,750 a year or a little over $72 a week. Are we supposed to believe this?

It is also important to point out that this was not a general election. People have connections with their parties that are familial, emotional and social and these ties influence their voting patterns. In this instance, the most salient connections people had to the issue of gaming were either their religious beliefs or their belief in equal rights for Bahamians. The latter was swept away by the government’s refusal to address the issues of discrimination and ownership, subsuming that voting bloc’s interests in a sea of garbled messaging and blatant evasiveness.  

Sure, I want black Bahamians to be industry leaders, to have a chance at creating wealth through ownership and to engage in the same entertainment tourist come to our country to experience. What I don’t want is to be lied to, mislead and coerced into voting by the threat of losing 3,000 jobs that may not even exist. Let’s place the blame where it truly belongs -- squarely at the feet of the government.

I have argued for sometime now that the discourse around this referendum was tragically limited to a “yes” or “no” vote. Instead, I want to suggest that what arises out of this experience are questions about government authority and competence, freedom of information, the influence of special interests and the desire of the Bahamian people to be heard.  

You may believe that the Bahamian electorate is less than intelligent but in every conversation I’ve had, every panel I’ve participated in and every radio show I’ve visited, one thing seems clear for me: the frustration of the Bahamian people is palpable. For once, I think we wanted to believe that the government would represent our interests -- that they would do what was right for us -- and they failed. Unfortunately, that is the real story.

Joey Gaskins is a graduate of Ithaca College, Ithaca, NY with a BA in Politics. He was born in Grand Bahama Island, studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) where he attained his MSc in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies and has begun a Doctoral Degree in Sociology.  Joey  lives in Nassau and is a part-time lecturer at College of the Bahamas. He also writes for  the Nassau Liberal  www. nassauliberal. webs.com  and The Tribune.

You can reach him at    jgaskinsjr@gmai l.com


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