‘Let’s get on with it’ Developers of the proposed new hotel at Morgan’s Point are glad there will be no referendum on gambling.
‘Let’s get on with it’ Developers of the proposed new hotel at Morgan’s Point are glad there will be no referendum on gambling.

A matter of political expediency and ‘we had to deceive you’ in order to save the economy — or a scar on the democratic process?

The announcement by Premier Craig Cannonier to scrap the OBA’s promise of a gambling referendum has sparked fierce debate on the relationship between Government and the people.

Yesterday, as the OBA marked its first anniversary in power, critics said it had already lost the trust of the people, while those set to benefit from a green light on gambling were full of praise for what they see as bold, decisive action by the OBA. 

Former PLP Premier Alex Scott, who has campaigned for stronger political ethics, said Government’s U-turn had betrayed the people: “This has come as quite a blow to the voting public who had been promised there would be a referendum. Even recently, the Premier was confirming that position,” he said. “The public will not only be disappointed but the Government ... is being seen to take away what is a fundamental democratic principle (allowing them to have their say).

“If that wasn’t bad enough, the explanation Government gave for withdrawing the referendum brings to mind the expression, ‘When you’re in a hole, stop digging’.”

Mr Cannonier said the PLP had threatened to boycott the referendum unless the wording of the question was changed.

But Mr Scott said: “It was very loaded, as it lifted the focus off gaming and on to jobs and hotel development. By withdrawing the right of the public to express their view in a referendum, the Government attempted to point the finger at the Opposition’s right to question the way the question was being worded. The OBA have now raised a serious question over their commitment to good governance.

“It also suggests the gaming lobby is taking over the Parliamentary procedure. It has always been my concern that the weight of the gaming industry, the investors and developers, would — over time — have an unhealthy influence of our Parliamentary procedures and process, and unfortunately this is an early indication.”

In contrast, among those welcoming the decision to cut the referendum are hotel developers.

Nelson Hunt, a co-owner/developer of Morgan’s Point together with Craig Christensen and Brian Duperreault, summed up Government’s move as “an early Christmas present”.

“It was a very smart move by the Government,” he said.

“We’ve seen what the SAGE Commission has said about cutting back on jobs and this will create jobs. It will improve confidence in investors. It’s just too bad they couldn’t have made the final decision (vote) on Friday as well — it’s just that important.

“Most of the investors we’ve spoken to, and at other hotels, one of the main things is, ‘We’re going to need a gaming permit for the property’.”

He said: “We have a very nice pristine island but we haven’t kept up with the times. We need to promote tourism. We are slow, period. And if you’re in the tourism business, investors want that option (casinos).

“I don’t think there will be any major development here without a gaming component. But we don’t have the luxury of time anymore, to wait for people to make up their minds.

“People are struggling to put food on the table and to pay their utility bills, and you’re going to have some silly argument about a referendum? The Government and the Premier made the right decision.”

Mr Christensen added: “This decision takes some uncertainty out of the question and brings the probability of gaming forward.

“I understand people’s thoughts of all wanting to have their say, but Government is looking at the best thing for Bermuda, so I hope that everyone will embrace that decision.”

Mr Duperreault declined to comment.

OBA MPs appeared to toe the party line yesterday.

Sylvan Richards, Junior Minister of Home Affairs, said: “There was an election promise; it was part of our platform to have a referendum on gaming. But now we’ve been governing for a year we’ve had a chance to review what is going on with the economy… and Government made a more important promise to get us out of this mess we are in and to create jobs, so this decision that we don’t need to have the referendum is the correct decision.

“The economy is still under stress, and job creation is what we are focused on. By not having the referendum, we can effect the change necessary to get the economy going again. It speeds up the process. We have to encourage direct, inward investment. If our investors are saying, ‘We want to build a new hotel but we need a gaming licence’, then it only makes sense to do that. 

“...We would have preferred a referendum but we understand the reason for the decision. I’m good with it, and I believe my colleagues are also.

“It’s about jobs, and every Member will be able to vote on it in the House. We will canvas our constituents and will vote the way they deem fit.”

Mr Richards, who was axed as Minister of Environment and Planning in last week’s Cabinet reshuffle, said: “I am fine with the decision the Premier made. I wasn’t blindsided or taken by surprise by it.”

Kenneth Bascome, OBA MP for St George’s North, said he had “no problem” with the decision to cancel the gaming referendum.

“Although it would appear to the community we are breaking our promises, I believe it’s the way to go. I will be speaking with most of my constituents to find out their position, and if they don’t want me to support it (gaming) in Parliament, I will reflect that. But most people I’ve spoken to don’t have a problem with it (gaming).”