DLP reopens casino debate
by ALBERT BRANDFORDThe attitude of Barbadians to the introduction of casino gambling, as reflected by the evidence before this Commission and in the Crichlow Report, has not changed significantly over the past 14 years; a majority still oppose it for the same reasons – religious precepts, probable organised and other crimes, corruption of public officials, drug trafficking, prostitution, and more recently money laundering opportunities. Experiences of other jurisdictions suggest that some of the fears are not unfounded. – Report of the Bishop Commission on Casino Gambling, 1995.MANY OF US who thought the controversial issue of casino gambling had been settled 15 years ago were surprised when the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) sought quietly to reopen the debate two Fridays ago in the House of Assembly.Acting Prime Minister Freundel Stuart and a senior Cabinet colleague Minister of Transport and Works John Boyce both seemed to agree that the time had come to revisit the issue.Speaking during debate on an amendment to the Betting And Gaming Act, Boyce felt that as Barbados sought to maintain its development, “keep up with the tourism challenges and the satisfaction of visitors to our society, we will be constantly faced with the need to answer investors, both foreign and local, in respect of these questions”.“It is inevitable that as we continue our development that we will be faced with the need to revisit the whole discussion as to how this process is managed and how we can continue and maintain our development in step with what the international demands may be, at the same time preserving those morals of society which Barbadians stand firmly on,” Boyce said. Responding to suggestions from the Opposition benches that the results of the Bishop Commission had ended the debate, Boyce asked: “What so informs the honourable member that we [the DLP] could not take the responsibility once again, looking at ways of introducing to the satisfaction of where the need is, but at the same time protecting, and I say this very carefully, protecting the Barbadian from unnecessary exposure to these elements.”Using the debate on nuclear power elsewhere with countries that were once opposed now embracing it with state investment, as an example, Boyce said those were the realities of living in a society that was constantly moving “but is not shaped by events which have long passed”.“So we have to be able to react to these changes,” Boyce said. “We have to be able as a responsible administration to take the information to the people and hear what they say now; hear what the people say today as against what they might have said, five, ten, or 15 years ago. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. And we have to be able to measure the results (a referendum?”).Stuart, the Acting Prime Minister, acknowledged the issue would continue to be divisive, but suggested nobody had a monopoly over ethics or over morality “and there has to be some flexibility on this issue . . . ”.“Whatever views were expressed on this issue in the past will have to be revisited from time to time as the society changes because we are living in a dynamic world, not a static world. There is kinesis, there is movement in the world and not stasis.“So, we will continue discussing this issue. This is not the last time we are going to discuss it but what has to prevail in a debate of this kind is that we all have to be level-headed and respectful of the opinions of others,” Stuart said.One does not have to be a rocket scientist to recognise that a Government whose revenue streams are under severe pressure would want to search high and low for avenues to augment its tax intake.At the beginning, I said some of us were surprised that the Dems would want to reopen this debate.But others more familiar with the history of the DLP and casino proposals weren’t.They reminded that Prime Minister David Thompson chaired the Foreign Exchange Committee (FXC), set up by Cabinet in 1991, which agreed that a study should be done on the pros and cons of tourist (read casino!?) related gambling, and whose mandate was only cut short by the September 1994 general election that resulted in a change in Government.Still, the DLP, and Thompson in particular, would have had the benefit of a report by Nat Solomon, a consultant on (and proponent of) casino gambling, who concluded that properly controlled and regulated casino gaming would be advantageous to the economy through its beneficial effect on tourism; further that it could be established in a manner perfectly compatible with Barbadian traditions and prevailing social values.Despite Opposition charges, never really disputed by Thompson, that he was involved in negotiations to bring casino gambling to Barbados although Cabinet was opposed, the new Prime Minister in his first Budget in 2008 made his intentions clear.He declared that the “obsolete” betting and gaming committee would be replaced and new legislation would address emerging challenges which included “Internet gaming, co-mingling (and most important) applications for casino gaming, requests for the use of locally-based vessels as floating casinos, attempt by non-nationals to establish gaming operations in this jurisdiction and applications for the operation of bingo clubs islandwide”.And in April this year, Thompson took a further step by allowing cruise ships to open their casinos in port for their passengers as part of an effort to have the ships stay here longer.He said then that ships usually left early because of the inability to open their casinos, and by allowing them to stay longer the benefits would trickle down since passengers would be able to visit such places as Holetown and Speightstown and shops would open longer to cater to these tourists.Some observers had interpreted this move as an indication that the Thompson administration was opening the door to another round of debate on this emotional issue; but it did not materialise.Could it be that in the absence of a public outcry, especially from the churches and civic groups, that the Government felt emboldened to publicly call for the issue to be revisited?Thompson had resolutely set his face against casino gambling, and during the 2008 election campaign when challenged by the BLP – which said it was opposed – that he was “vacillating” he denied “categorically any interest in any gambling activity”.Opponents of casino gambling, who, in the words of the commission, feel that the moral and social aspects of the introduction outweigh any benefits such as increased investment in tourism, more jobs, and greater foreign exchange earnings, fervently hope that such disinterest would extend to the entire Cabinet.