Govt urged to tackle oil vote ‘differently’
Analysts say proposed legislation prior to referendum would build consensus, eliminate politics and improve education over exploratory drill
Guardian Business Editor
Nassau, The Bahamas
Business leaders are urging the government to treat the gambling issue as a learning experience for the upcoming oil drilling referendum.
While the "Vote No" campaign was victorious on Monday, observers have noted that low turnout and general apathy impacted the democratic process.
The government was frequently criticized for being unclear in the referendum questions and failing to introduce specific legislation to back up the possible legalization of gaming. The vote also became highly politicized, prompting rival parties to endorse opposing views.
For an upcoming oil drilling referendum, a decision that could indeed reshape the country's economy, the process must be handled "in a completely different way", according to Richard Coulson, a well-known financial consultant.
"The government will need to go to great lengths to explain what the issues are," he told Guardian Business.
"Oil drilling is not a moral or religious issue. It will be a matter of whether you can explain the economic advantages and technical reasons why the environment can be protected. If those points can be explained, there should be no rejection."
In the nation's young history, both referendums brought to the people have been strongly rejected.
Coulson said that changes are needed to ensure referendums occur properly without placing the country's future at risk.
On the issue of oil drilling, he urged politicians to arrive at a consensus prior to the vote by crafting a detailed proposal and piece of legislation on how the process would be administered.
Member of Parliament for East Grand Bahama Peter Turnquest agreed that future referendums need parliamentary involvement.
Turnquest said that the current government tried to "push" the idea of gambling on Bahamians, believing that people would simply vote yes. The former head of the Grand Bahama Chamber of Commerce said specific legislation must go through a "period of education" whereby the public is taken through the process.
"Anything short of that will result in a similar kind of situation," he added.
Indeed, a negative result in regards to oil drilling is the last thing the Bahamas Petroleum Company (BPC) wants, not to mention its legions of international shareholders.
As Bahamians voted in the gambling referendum, investors in BPC on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) watched keenly and speculated on when a vote on oil exploration could occur.
Shares of BPC ended yesterday's trading at 5.51 pence. That compares to around 16 pence per share back in February 2012.
The Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) pledged a referendum on the subject prior to coming into power last May.
At the time, Opposition Leader Perry Christie drew headlines when he confirmed that he was a legal consultant for Davis & Co., the law firm that represented BPC. Meanwhile, the Free National Movement (FNM) famously revoked BPC’s licences during the election.
These licenses were reinstated by the PLP after coming into power.
It has been speculated that a referendum on oil drilling could occur by the summer, although no formal timeline or process has been announced by government.
January 30, 2013