Editorial | Sunday, 11 October 2009

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The game’s afoot

It is perhaps symptomatic of the troubles currently facing government that, of all things, it had to be a discussion on amendments to the Lotteries and Other Games Act to have finally precipitated a showdown.
Disgruntled backbenchers this week told MaltaToday that they would not accept having to rubberstamp legislation without discussing it beforehand – referring to Finance Minister Tonio Fenech’s idea to introduce regulations for the licensing of gaming outlets by means of a legal notice, after the new legal amendments are eventually approved by parliament.
They also expressed misgivings and suspicions about the Bill itself, strongly hinting that there was an ulterior motive to the proposed amendments, which would favour the eventual winner of an ongoing tender for one of Malta’s three highly lucrative casinos.
However, whether or not this is true – and certainly the timing does appear to be suspect – one must concede that some sort of retuning of Malta’s gaming legislation has now become urgent, in the light of the recent proliferation of gambling halls in every town and village in the country.
Nor can one realistically make do with the present anomalous situation, whereby these same gaming halls were suddenly closed down from one day to the next last June... citing a “legal loophole” as justification, but without offering any opportunity to these establishments to regularise their position.
This is evidently an unsatisfactory solution to the problem, and from this perspective it is understandable that government would wish to discuss a longer-term and more legally consistent alternative. But at the same time, the Bill moved in parliament this week also contains a number of anomalies and oddities: starting with what appears to be a wholesale discrimination between different forms of gambling.
For one thing, the weights and measures applied to gaming halls – a recent phenomenon which has clearly spiralled out of control in a relatively short time – appear to be totally unlike those governing other, socially “acceptable” forms of gambling... such as the Super Five and other lotteries.
This in turn follows on from similar (and even more outrageous) differences in approach between the various forms of gambling. Access to the casinos, for instance, is restricted to over-25-year-olds in the case of Maltese citizens... while advertising for the same casinos is regulated in positively Draconian manner by the Lotteries and Gaming Authority.
No such restrictions appear to exist for the lotto itself... in fact, while newspapers are hounded over “advertorials” which happen to mention gambling in passing, the Super Five and other lotteries are freely advertised everyday on prime time TV, without the Gaming Authority so much as batting an eyelid.
In the case of Super Five, government recently even removed previous limits on the maximum pot a player can win, encouraging more and more people to participate, often at the expense of their weekly shopping.
Clearly, then, Malta’s gaming laws did need to be ‘rationalised’ with a view to ironing out these and other anomalies. But on another level altogether, the curious timing of the parliamentary debate – as well as revelations from last week’s parliamentary group meeting – suggest that such ‘rationalisation’ may not have been the only thing currently on government’s mind.
For instance, the crackdown on all gaming halls was carried out last June... only four days before the opening of the Dragonara Casino tender process, after the expiry of Accor’s 10-year lease. MaltaToday is reliably informed that following this same crackdown, Malta’s casinos registered an increase in profits of up to 30% – suggesting that the defunct gaming halls’ business was in whole or in part diverted to these casinos after their closure.
Is it a coincidence, then, that legislation which would no doubt increase the Dragonara’s intrinsic value, had to be debated before the adjudication of the same casino’s tender?
Backbenchers have also suggested that there may be political motivations for pushing the amendments through parliament precisely now – and more so for the subsequent licensing regulations by legal notice, which would bypass any parliamentary debate on the amendments themselves.
As the same backbenchers hinted with this newspaper last Wednesday, the Prime Minister appears keen on avoiding this particular debate if he can help it, possibly out of concern that the same disgruntled MPs might refuse to play ball and undermine his government’s stability by voting against the bill.
Admittedly this would not cause the present government to collapse. But a defeat for his government at this delicate stage would certainly weaken an already beleaguered Prime Minister, and compound the impression of a full-scale backbencher revolt.

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The game’s afoot


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