Monday, February 23, 2004

Liberals the kings of expanded gambling

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It's bizarre to see the party that promised to stop gambling expansion now planning on slots in every corner of the province, from Fort Nelson to Prince Rupert.
That's the next phase in the government's plan to get more money from gambling.
The communities won't be getting casinos. And the government hasn't yet abandoned its oppositions to slots in bars.
Instead the next step is to put slot machines in local bingo halls, or "community gaming entertainment centres," as the BC Lottery Corp. now wants to start calling them.
There's nothing unusual in government's becoming addicted to gambling. B.C. isn't even that bad yet, compared to other provinces.
But it's downright weird that a party which opposed expanded gambling ferociously for years, pointing to the damage done, would turn out to be the gambling kings.
The Liberals New Era campaign promise was clear: "Stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families."
Nice words, but what's happened since?
Instead of stopping the expansion, the Liberals jumped heavily into the gambling business.
When the Liberals were elected, there were 2,400 slots in 10 casinos. By the end of this year, the Liberals will have doubled the number of slot machines. (The Liberals also said they opposed slots at race tracks during the election campaign; now they're on their way.)
And when they took over, gambling netted $562 million for the government. The Liberals have increased that by 50-per-cent in three years, to $850 million this year. They want to crack the $1-billion profit mark in two years, making gambling as important to government revenues as the forest industry.
Their official explanation is lame. Solicitor General Rich Coleman told an open cabinet meeting that the NDP indicated to some casino operators, sometime, that they could someday have slots. Freezing the expansion would break these vague promises and the province might get sued, he said.
It's an ironic claim from a government that has happily ripped up real agreements. And it's simply not credible. The Liberals have worked to expand the scale and scope of gambling; they could have slowed the expansion legally and fairly by holding proponents to their original plans and schedules. Many would be gone by now.
The defense certainly doesn't cover the plan to put slots in bingo halls, providing gambling opportunities in many more towns and neighbourhoods. (We already pumped about $3.2-billion into slot machines in B.C. last year.)
The new fondness for gambling is understandable. Without the expansion since the election, the Liberals would be looking at a $200-million budget deficit this year, not a surplus.
They're looking to recruit even more gamblers, through advertising and appealing games. The BC Lottery Corp. says 59 per cent of B.C. adults bet with the corporation in a typical month. Its goal is to get that up to 65 per cent over the next four years. That's another 200,000 people persuaded to gamble. Most of them will just waste a bit of money. But according to the corporation's own figures, about 8,000 will become problem gamblers, joining 75,000 existing problem gamblers in B.C.
The Liberals used to put those people first. They warned about the damage to families, the increased crime, loan-sharking and suicides. That's why they said no gambling expansion.
The BC Lottery Corp. is just doing its job, and doing it well enough that the corporation was honoured as the 2003 BC Marketer of the Year. It has an 18-person marketing department and a $10-million budget just to get more people to play lotteries and Keno.
But it should scare us that the best marketers in the whole province are promoting gambling, in co-operation with a government that's encouraging its spread.
There's no doubt the money is good. But the Liberals used to think that wasn't enough.
Footnote: The flip-flop is breathtaking. In 1998 Gordon Campbell bristled at the idea that the Liberals might waffle on gambling. "We fought tooth and nail against their plan to bring Vegas-style gambling, slot machines and VLTs to B.C. We want an independent review of gambling and a provincial referendum. The social costs of gambling expansion -- increased crime, broken families and increased poverty -- are simply too high a price to pay."

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