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Raffique Shah


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Stop gambling? Manning must be crazy

October 08, 2006
By Raffique Shah

It is instructive that in a National Budget of $38 billion during fiscal 2006-07, the two proposals that have generated the fiercest controversies are the Finance Minister's bid to clamp down on gambling and increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco. Retirees and pensioners have zeroed in on the less-than-caring manner in which they continue to be treated. The unemployed and under-employed have stayed silent, if only because they are not taxed on their meagre earnings or alms. And many of the concerns over the negative impact inflation has on people's purchasing power seem to have simmered down.

But not the nation's all-too-many gamblers and drinkers: they have emerged as the most vocal groups, assailing Patrick Manning for trying to impose his moral values on them. Now we are hearing of a "gaming association" comprising casino owners who vow to resist this threat "to thousands of jobs" (no mention of millions in profits). Every PNM-UNC-COP man-jack threatening to bring down the vengeance of Moko on Manning should he dare touch Play Whe and Lotto. Grandmothers complain that "Mr Manning 'ent know how many ah we does mind we family on ah mark." Drinkers vow that whatever the price, "we go drink we beers." But to a man, the common thread is that Manning has no authority to dictate morals to the society.

A fine pickle the Prime Minister has found himself in. He thundered in Parliament: "This Government is against gaming against gambling!" I swear I saw a few of his ministers cringe, maybe wondering if they would be axed when it's discovered that they are compulsive gamblers. Let me make a bold prediction here. Mr Manning will not be allowed to shut down state-sponsored online gaming, nor will he be able to curb or close down the many casinos that mushroomed since these establishments were given governmental green-light. I further challenge him: do it and you will lose the next general elections!

You see, those who do not hear or listen to reason are destined to feel the wrath of the mobs or masses when their sins return to haunt them. Gambling is a vice older than prostitution, and drinking alcohol must have been around since Adam, if he existed, was groping his way in the Garden of Eden. Here in T&T we have always had gambling, whether it took place in dingy members' clubs or private homes or "bush wappie". As for alcohol, if "legal brews" are priced beyond the reach of the average drinker, then "bush rum" will thrive. So it's pointless pretending that we were a nation with high moral values, that a decline set in when gambling was legalised and alcohol made universally available.

What took the matter beyond the point of reason was when, in the 1990s I believe, the Government decided to garner extra revenue by legitimising online gaming. At the time governments worldwide saw this potential and exploited it to the hilt. Since people will gamble anyway, why not profit from it? And it was wildly successful in terms of returns to governments' coffers.

Here, I was among the few voices that warned the government about opening a Pandora's Box that it would live to rue. Nobody listened. In fact, I was ridiculed by ministers in that Manning regime, and by my own friends. I dubbed it a voluntary tax, and suggested that instead of going that way, the government may wish to offer hefty bonuses, on a random basis, to people who paid their taxes early, and paid in full. That way there might have been a rush to pay taxes, much the way people used to queue to play online games.

But who listens to a fool? Who among gamblers believes that the "casa" or "house" always wins? A gambler may lose and lose again, but he, and increasingly now she, always believes the big jackpot is a next bet away. Play Whe addicts "mind marks" forever in the hope that they will win them hefty returns some day. Casino gamblers spend sleepless nights-into-days trying to recover their losses, only to sink deeper into debt. One would think that the Government, which is supposed to think rationally, would have understood that irrational mindset and would never have sanctioned or sponsored such games or establishments.

Governments do not listen to voices of reason. Prime Ministers suddenly become omniscient upon taking office. Now, long after he allowed the jackass to bolt the stable, Mr Manning is seeking to close the door. He will not be allowed to, not by his supporters or his detractors. In similar manner, today Mr Manning is now being advised to carefully consider all traffic mitigation options before plunging into a multi-billion-dollar rail project. Much the way he and his ministers ridiculed those who opposed state-sponsored gambling, they scoff at "detractors" of rail. My only regret in these two scenarios is that it is he who won't hear, and we, the people, who will be made to feel, and pay for, the massive cost of this misadventure.