Controversial gaming amendment passed
New legislation to let the tourism minister fire members of the Casino Gaming Commission and issue policy direction to the regulatory body was passed by MPs on Friday night.
The Casino Gaming Amendment Act 2017 came under strong criticism in recent weeks.
Opponents of the change said it eroded the independence of the commission.
Jamahl Simmons, who tabled the amendment Act, insisted that the approach in the new Bill was “not unusual, not unique and not unheard of”.
Mr Simmons said the Government had taken note of concerns about the Act and made the two changes to the original Amendment Act after consultation with the new gaming commissioner, Cheryl-Ann Mapp.
The first amendment said that the minister can “from time to time after consultation with the Commission give to the Commission in writing such general directions as appear to the minister to be necessary in the public interest and the commission shall act in accordance with such directions”.
The second amendment added: “The minister may at any time revoke the appointment of a member who is unable or unwilling to perform his duties as a member or in such other circumstances where the member’s conduct may amount to misconduct or breach of best regulatory practice, or is likely to bring the commission or the Government into disrepute.” Mr Simmons told the House that the new provision for directions to be in writing ensured they would be clear, while the second amendment provided greater “specificity in terms of reasoning”.
But Opposition MPs said the new amendments only watered down the overall impact of the legislation and did little to address their main concern of government interference with an independent body.
Mr Simmons began the debate with a condemnation of a “calculated, malicious and divisive media campaign” designed to portray the PLP as “inherently corrupt, incompetent and dictatorial”.
He said: “This government rejects those stereotypes. The Government has been given a mandate and it is right that mutual trust and respect exists for Government to execute that mandate.”
Leah Scott, the deputy leader of the One Bermuda Alliance, told MPs it was vital that the Commission was seen to be independent and asked Government to reconsider the legislation.
She added: “I don’t think that internationally it gives a good perception that the minister can interfere in this way.”
OBA MP Grant Gibbons also told Mr Simmons that he should “let this legislation die on the order paper”. Mr Gibbons said the Act was “ill advised and wrong”.
He added: “This will do a great deal of harm to our gaming industry and damage to our reputation.”
But PLP MPs Kim Swan, Michael Scott and Zane DeSilva jumped to the defence of the Act.
Mr Scott said the legislation was “reasonable, moderate and responsive”.
Former premier Michael Dunkley joined the OBA chorus of opposition.
He said the law change was “draconian” and insisted that the Commission should be “as apolitical as possible”.
Mr Dunkley predicted: “It’s a wrong move, it’s a bad move, it will backfire.”
But David Burt, the Premier, hit back at Opposition MPs.
He said the new legislation was “very simple”.
Mr Burt added: “We will continue to prove we are up for the job and we are going to make sure we do it right.”
Mr Simmons pointed out that the Casino Gaming Commission’s initial membership had been “political appointees”.
He also confirmed that three commissioners had resigned. They are chairman Alan Dunch, his deputy Garry Madeiros and Derek Ramm, with Dennis Tucker and Judith Hall-Bean remaining in position.
Mr Simmons said: “These changes in the legislation will not allow me, the future minister or the next government to interfere with corruption investigations.
“They will not allow me to decide who gets casino licences.”
The legislation passed with a vote on party lines after a two-hour debate, with the Government side winning 17 to 12. Six PLP members were absent from the chamber at the time of the vote: education minister Diallo Rabain, junior finance minister Wayne Furbert, whip Michael Weeks and backbenchers Derrick Burgess, Renée Ming and Michael Scott. Only Mr Weeks had declared himself absent at the start of the day.
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