Calling to a higher power: Former United Bermuda Party Leader Kim Swan said the petition is about preserving democracy by giving the people a voice. *Photo by Nicola Muirhead
Calling to a higher power: Former United Bermuda Party Leader Kim Swan said the petition is about preserving democracy by giving the people a voice. *Photo by Nicola Muirhead

The rhetoric was optimistic. Bermudians would “rise to the occasion”. 

The issue at hand “transcends political party loyalties,” which makes sense, since it was, after all, essentially an exercise in “the preservation of democracy.”

That was the kind of language community leaders used today as they launched a petition drive that calls for a referendum on the prospect of casino gambling coming to the island.

Michael D. Ashton, a former social services director and one of the organizers of the petition, said political apathy won’t be a problem, predicting that the petition will garner much more than the initial goal of 4,000 signatures.

“I don’t believe Bermudians are apathetic,” said Ashton at an early afternoon press conference just outside the House of Assembly. “I believe we need to get the information out to them and as they then understand the extended consequences. Something of this importance, I think local Bermudians will rise to the occasion and step forward. It doesn’t take an enormous commitment to put your signature on a petition.”

The proponents stressed that the push was apolitical and nonpartisan and downplayed the possibility of  tapping into existing networks such as churches or looking to the OBA’s political opposition for support for the referendum. Mr Ashton suggested that tapping into such networks won’t be necessary.

“We’ll have anyone and everyone stand forth as individual Bermudians. I don’t think we’ll lobby any particular group,” he said.

Last month, the OBA said gambling legislation would be brought to the Legislature without a referendum. The announcement represented an about-face; the party had previously pledged to have a gambling referendum. At the time, Premier Craig Cannonier said the opposition would undermine the referendum process. 

Jonathan Starling, one of the activists organizing the petition and a former independent political candidate in the last general election, was among those to suggest the need for the referendum transcends partisanship.

“We are united in our belief that a referendum on gambling is the most appropriate vehicle for deciding this issue,” he said. “We believe that this transcends political party loyalties or even support or opposition to gambling itself.”

He added, “While we take no position for or against gambling in general, we recognize that a referendum on casino gambling also allows for a wider conversation on gambling in general, and we think that such wider conversations should be welcomed by all as apart of an educational process involving all sectors of society.”

Stuart Hayward, chief advocacy officer for the Bermuda Environmental Sustainability Taskforce, said the petition organizers supported a referendum because “that would seem to be the most fruitful path resulting in a more informed decision.”

Asked if he agreed with the Premier’s take that a referendum would be politically hijacked, Kim Swan, The former leader of the United Bermuda Party, and a supporter of the petition said: “What is necessary is for a referendum to go forward. The country was a promised a referendum by all parties… this is about the preservation of democracy.”