There is significant political support for a national referendum on casino gambling in the Cayman Islands.
Independent candidates and representatives from all parties have spoken in support of a public ballot on the issue.
Candidates differ on whether casinos would be good for the country. Whatever their personal position, most seem to agree that the public should decide.
Roy McTaggart, an independent candidate for George Town, said it is imperative that the people are involved in such a significant decision.
“It is so important for us to get this right that I wouldn’t want to advance it without a clear mandate from the people, so I would certainly support a referendum.”
Both Rolston Anglin, the education minister, and Alden McLaughlin, Leader of the Opposition Progressives, have previously spoken in support of a referendum to decide the issue.
The United Democratic Party’s Ellio Solomon warned against making ‘feel good’ statements in support of a referendum or in favour of gaming. He said a proper analysis of the benefits and costs, including hidden costs such as treating addiction, would need to take place before moving towards a public vote.
Mr. McTaggart believes casino gambling is something that should be considered, if it proves to be what the people want.
“It is something that I would be prepared to look at very carefully. There are opportunities for the government to gain valuable revenue if we go down that route.”
He said government stood to make substantial revenue from licensing fees and casino operations.
The move also has the potential to attract tourists, with many surveys pointing to gaming as a key issue for US tourists.
Mr. McTaggart added: “The best example is the Bahamas. The Paradise Island gambling casinos are very popular with American tourists. People take a weekend trip and spend their money there.”
He said he understood there would be concerns over social consequences but added that gambling was already commonplace.
“The fact of the matter is that gambling is already taking place in this country in a big way. You have the numbers games, people travel to the US to gamble. It is not that we are protected from it at the moment.”
He said another way to address those concerns would be to follow the route the Bahamas had taken and make casinos open to tourists only.
“If you look at the Bahamas model they preclude their citizens from gambling in their casinos. That is the model they have taken and we would have to have that debate as well.”
He said any move to introduce casinos would have to come with the proper legal framework.
“We would have to ensure that we have the proper regulatory environment to ensure all the operations were conducted legitimately,” he added.
Mr. Solomon, who is running for re-election in George Town, said proper research had not been done in the Cayman Islands to show if the financial benefits outweighed the negatives, including indirect costs such as families affected by addiction needing government support.
He said: “To talk about a referendum is an easy cop-out for politicians. To me the government would have to go forward, do the research, find out what the real cost/benefit analysis is. Once we have that and if we believe there is more benefit than cost, then you can think about throwing it out there in a government issued referendum and give your expressed opinion at that point.
“The public should have all the facts to make an informed decision. In the absence of the proper research we are all just making statements.”
Sharon Roulstone, an independent candidate for George Town, agreed that a referendum should be preceded by an independent investigation into the issue to arm the public with the necessary information to make a decision.
“I would only support a referendum on the issue after a fair and balanced assessment where the costs and benefits of casino gambling were fully explored and the results provided in an objective format to the voting public for their consideration.”
She said there were good arguments on both sides of the debate and the issue would be best decided by a public vote.
“While there may be some financial benefit to the government, if properly regulated, casino gambling brings other cost considerations such as the social ills that arise from compulsive and pathological gambling, the potential increase in crime and whether our police force is properly equipped to deal with this type of criminal behaviour.”
She said increased rates of mental health issues, drug use, bankruptcies and divorce were often linked to casinos.
Mr. McLaughlin has outlined similar personal concerns in the past, but indicated some of his party members were “far more liberal” on the issue.
Speaking at the Cayman Business Outlook panel discussion in January, Mr. McLaughlin said he would support a referendum on casino gambling, as long as the question about whether local Caymanians would be able to make wagers in the facilities was resolved prior to the balloting.
“The issue with casinos is the same one that Bahamas have contended with: Should you or should you not let your local population play?” he said.
At the same event, Minister Anglin, expressed his support for a referendum, indicating that he would be likely to vote in favour.
He said it could be a boost for tourism in the country.
“Look at the number of countries in the region and look at how those have completely changed and revolutionised their tourism products,” he added.