Licking His Wounds

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February 04, 2013

Let me state it at the top. We love the fact that Prime Minister Perry Christie is so accessible. He loves a microphone and we love headlines. But on Tuesday morning, the day after the failed gambling referendum, taking questions from reporters was the last thing that Christie was interested in.

Unlike other Tuesday mornings when reporters and cameramen were allowed to set up at the Cabinet steps and await the arrival of the prime minister, last Tuesday they were made to wait in Rawson Square, and were prevented by a police officer from getting close enough to approach the prime minister upon his arrival. Christie opted instead to read a brief statement in the Cabinet Office in response to the referendum outcome. Although it was a press conference style setup he refused to answer any questions. In fact, this time his "press

secretary" was conveniently present to make certain the prime minister did not speak extemporaneously. In recent months and weeks, Christie stumbled from one blunder to the next, and so confused the process that a no vote appeared guaranteed -- and it was. As the ballot does not require voters to provide any explanation for why they voted the way they did, it is impossible at this point to determine in any scientific way the main reason the no vote emerged victorious on Monday.

Members of the Christian Council and its Save Our Bahamas Committee were jubilant on Monday night as they watched the returns at Grace Community Church. They had pushed hard for the no vote on moral and social grounds. But many voters who voted no did so directly as a result of the lack of information, the failure by the government to keep its promise of a public education campaign, confusion over legal issues connected to the vote, the arrogance with which the Christie administration handled the process and the prime minister's perplexing statements, which made it seem as if he was making it up as he went along.

Many people did not quite get why UK and South African gambling consultants were hired by the government, especially since Christie advised there was no formal report and the government could present no details on how a regulated web shop industry would function or how a national lottery would be operated. Many voters simply felt insulted by Christie's approach to the gambling referendum, and so they delivered an answer he clearly did not want -- no. In many cases, voters were voicing their disapproval of Christie and his actions, more so than the gambling issue itself.

Christie suffered a black eye at the polls on referendum day, but the lashing he took in many circles -- especially in social media -- is continuing. While there was reaction from the Christian Council, the leader of the Opposition Dr. Hubert Minnis, PLP Chairman Bradley Roberts and web shop bosses after the referendum results came in Monday night, there was nothing but silence from the prime minister and his administration. On Tuesday, Christie's handlers and advisers made sure he stayed clear of reporters -- save for the carefully crafted press statements released that day.

Notwithstanding his previous statement that the referendum was non-binding, he said he would be guided by the results and had to confer with his Cabinet colleagues after the vote. Action Not long after, attorney Wayne Munroe, who represents a group of web shop operators, wrote Attorney General Allyson Maynard-Gibson advising that he had been instructed by his clients to commence court action. He said he advised that prudence should dictate that the status quo be maintained in the meantime.

According to Munroe, Maynard-Gibson agreed the matter was eminently suitable to be litigated, but she provided no such undertaking that the status quo would remain. On Tuesday night, the prime minister announced a shutdown of the web shop gaming industry. But an injunction handed down by Senior Justice Jon Isaacs the following morning made the directive ineffective.

With the injunction now in place, web shop bosses can operate without looking over their shoulders and gamblers are free to enjoy this pastime unencumbered or without any fear of being arrested by law enforcement authorities -- not that shutting down gambling operations was ever a priority of the police. For the industry, this is a stunning development. With the matter now before the courts, the prime minister has a free pass -- at least for now. He is able to get away with not speaking publicly on the issue; he has dodged having to deal with the layoffs of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and he has also avoided the law enforcement nightmare that would undoubtedly come with shutting down numbers houses.

We are still however interested in his assessment of what transpired on Monday, why he thinks voter turnout was below 50 percent, and whether he has any regrets about his handling of the process. Outside the court process, there are still questions that Christie should answer, like exactly how much did this non-binding referendum cost taxpayers, and what will be the taxpayers' portion of the bill for the various consultants hired. Lesson This entire referendum process was led by Christie.

The minister responsible for gaming, Obie Wilchcombe, had something to say along the way, but offered very little specifics on the matter. And Chairman of the Gaming Board Dr. Andre Rollins, had very little to say but for his recent intervention that the process was "awkward and untidy". The government has come across as being incompetent on this issue. Initially, the prime minister said there was no need for any legislation to govern the process. After backtracking on this point, he delayed the vote and did little else to bring some clarity ahead of the referendum.

Christie turned off some people by stating a couple weeks ago that the referendum was non-binding. Some rightly asked the question, "Then what is the point?" The prime minister also took the lottery question off the ballot after advice from consultants but was forced to add it back after public pressure. And he overused the "no-horse-in-the-race" term while at the same time repeatedly making statements that appeared to support a yes vote. By the way, there appears to be some recognition that the recent referendum process lacked clarity.

Christie has promised a constitutional referendum ahead of the 40th anniversary of independence in July. He was eyeing May or June to bring the issues regarding constitutional reform to the people. But on Friday, former Attorney General Sean McWeeney, who heads that Constitutional Commission, told reporters that the commission is considering recommending that the constitutional referendum be delayed to allow the electorate more time to consider the complex issues that will be on the ballot.

Indeed, after last Monday, Christie might just be shy of bringing any more referenda to the people any time soon. This would mean that the casino question that the prime minister foreshadowed might be on the next referendum would not be immediately addressed. To avoid another black eye, it would be smart to give the electorate time to digest the issues of another referendum, but time alone is not enough. The government must take a serious approach to educating the public on matters that would be put to a vote. Christie has also promised a referendum on oil drilling, which seems absurd. Such a highly scientific and complex matter should be decided on by the government after careful advice from experts.

Christie blurted out plans for a referendum on oil drilling during the 2012 general election campaign in the face of conflict of interest claims. It was meant to kill the debate that had developed over the revelation that Bahamas Petroleum Company, which wants to drill for oil in The Bahamas, benefited from legal advice provided by Christie while he was in opposition. The two referenda held in The Bahamas after independence have both failed, and have both been plagued by claims of a flawed and messy process. Last week, many voters sent the message that the process has to be done right.

The public wants the benefit of information. Voters want to feel respected and comfortable with what's being presented. Unless Christie and his government take another approach in any future referenda, such votes might also fail. Fortunately for Christie, the black eye of the failed gambling referendum has come early in this term. There is much time to re-focus. We hope that the January 28 referendum serves as a lesson for the prime minister on how these matters ought to be handled.

Like Christie and the rest of the country, we await the outcome of the court's determination on the future of web shop gambling in The Bahamas. If the matter goes all the way to the Privy Council, the gambling issue could very well be up for debate during the next general election campaign, given the pace at which the Privy Council handled certain cases.

Whatever the decision of the court, the government would have challenges ahead: It would either have to deal with the fallout of increased unemployment and strain already stressed police resources, or set up a regulated industry with a credible tax collection system and a fair process for the granting of licenses.

Today, attorneys for web shop bosses intend to file their papers in court in relation to this matter. It would be interesting no doubt to hear the court's determination on whether web shops are indeed operating illegally. The time has long passed for this matter to be addressed.

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News date : 02/04/2013    Category : Opinion, Nassau Guardian Stories

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