Opinion: Lottery referendum may carry political and other risks Loop Cayman Islands

The content originally appeared on: News Americas Now

The content originally appeared on: Cayman Compass

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By Alric Lindsay

Two political veterans, McKeeva Bush and Sir Alden McLaughlin made critical points during the debate on the lottery referendum in Parliament last week.

I think that their points, centering on the general criticism and political and technical challenges that the lottery referendum may face ought to be carefully considered by their fellow MPs as they make plans to engage constituents.

If not properly analyzed, the outcome may not be favourable to voters, MPs, or other stakeholders as questions surface regarding the execution of the lottery referendum process.

Setting the stage

Setting the stage for what could happen, Bush said that while “It is a very compelling argument for any government to seek the will of the people on a national lottery for Cayman,” and it is a good argument to say that “we are being democratic to bring a referendum,” action would still need to be taken by politicians to execute their strategy and to win votes on either side of the lottery referendum.

Emphasizing the point, Bush said:

My feeling is, in the time it will take to bring a bill to have a referendum… unless the Premier is saying [he] is setting a time frame… I didn’t catch that if he did say so… first quarter… then you gotta have the referendum, you gotta go out and campaign for it.

If such campaigning occurs as Bush expects, MPs may need to spend significant time explaining their views on the lottery referendum, convincing voters to vote, and assuring voters that their actions are in their best interests.

The implication of such timing, coupled with the mechanics of the referendum process, may mean that even if the government can get enough “yes” votes, implementation of the lottery may not occur right away or at least not within the short time frame that stakeholders might expect.

Explaining this in more detail, Bush said: “My concern is if there is a ‘yes,’ then you have to come up with a lottery. You have to come up with a lottery system. I guess consultants will have to be employed to create a lottery system. When then will that take us to?”

In my view, the time taken by such consultants (if engaged) also means money will have to be spent by the government (such costs do not appear to have been covered by Bush in his speech and are possible costs that might not have been contemplated at the time of the initial budget projections).

Even with cost concerns out of the way, however, Bush argued that there would still be a potential political issue for the government if the support for the lottery referendum reflected a division between voters, reflected in a small margin of “yes” to “no” votes.

Articulating, Bush said:

Then what happens if the referendum vote is close between the noes and the yes?So close that it gives jitters to go with the close yes.

Or jitters to go with the noes.

And Government advises or advisors says it is too close to go to set up a system.

Bush added: “There is no doubt that there is going to be a huge pushback from our churches and other religious people who will fight usually about what causes social deterioration. That is going to be part and parcel of their argument.”

Based on my observations, the considerable pushback Bush speaks about from churches may include subtle mentions of the issue by pastors to their congregations, directly or indirectly influencing the way members of the congregation vote on the lottery referendum.

In terms of political risks, if there is a large volume of voters with a religious base who disagree with the relevant MP’s “campaign” in respect of the lottery referendum, these voters may determine that the relevant MP no longer represents them on crucial issues.

This perception of a lack of representation could have severe implications for re-election in the next general elections, especially if the relevant MP loses the support of the “church vote.”

The risk of this happening is probably why Bush made the statement that there may be “jitters” if there is a close “yes” or a close “no” vote.

“It is a most difficult thing,” as Bush put it.

Appearing to agree with the general sentiments expressed by Bush, Sir Alden McLaughlin suggested to his fellow MPs that they ought to listen to Bush’s wise council on the lottery referendum.

McLaughlin’s basis for the suggestion was that Bush is a “wily old veteran of Cayman politics,” in fact, “the longest survivor ever.”

Rather than rehashing Bush’s concerns, however, McLaughlin discussed possible legal challenges that could arise due to the wording of the referendum and the constitutional implications of a people-initiated referendum versus a government-initiated one.

Concerning this, McLaughlin explained:

The constitution is set up in a way that allows the government under section 69 to ask the house to resolve that there should be a referendum on a matter or matters of national importance.

Section 69 does not place a positive duty on the government to effect the result of a referendum brought under it. Government is not bound by that resolution.

Section 70 is different. The people-initiated referendum, the government is bound by the result of that referendum if more than 50% of the registered voters have voted in favour or against whatever the question is.

In my view, this elucidation by McLaughlin is a warning to voters that if a government-initiated referendum is pursued rather than a people-initiated one, the government could eventually back out if there is no constitutional obligation to proceed with the people’s wishes under a government-initiated referendum.

Raising an issue with the proposed wording for the referendum, McLaughlin also noted that the referendum question “is far too imprecise.”

Regarding this, he said:

Experience has taught me… the need to set out what the question carefully and precisely to minimize the possibility of challenges down the road.

What I’m saying is not trying to argue against the government going ahead with this.

I am trying to do my duty as someone who has lived through these sorts of things and lost even when we did our very best to get the detail right.

In saying this, McLaughlin appears to be referring to the challenge by voters against the construction of the cruise berthing facility, in connection with which no referendum vote was eventually held.

Based on the experience afforded to McLaughlin, he said, “There is going to be some significant pushback,” adding, “There is more likely than not going to be legal challenges to this referendum going ahead.”

Given the concerns raised by the two veterans, I think voters, MPs, and other stakeholders should discuss the lottery referendum carefully and ensure adequate time for the people to consider and understand whether the proposal is in their best interests.