Friday, October 09, 2009

B.C. expands gambling, cuts prevention and support

The Liberal government's gambling addiction is spinning out  of control.
It's still expanding betting in the province, looking for ways to  increase the number of gamblers and the average amount each one loses  in a week.
At the same time, it's slashing the money for problem gambling  prevention and treatment by 34 per cent this year. B.C. will spend  $4.6 million. Ontario, with three times the population, will spends  nine times as much.
Up to the point that they go broke, kill themselves or get arrested  for embezzling, problem gamblers are great customers for B.C. Lotteries. The corporation's financial targets for this year include the goal of  an average $740 loss from everyone who plays Bingo, buys lottery  tickets or goes to casinos.
Most people who buy a few lottery tickets don't let things get that  out of hand. The corporation needs big losers to hit that goal. And  problem gamblers are big losers.
The Globe and Mail has done an excellent series on. It used freedom of  information requests to get data from the B.C. Gold Players Card,  which the Crown corporation uses to identify and reward big losers.  Gamblers use the card in casinos and the corporation gets huge amounts  of information on where they bet, how much and their losses. It can  offer the big losers benefits to keep them coming back. And boy, there are big losers. Ten B.C. gamblers posted combined  losses of $11.7 million in a year. Eight lost more than $1 million. To make the top 100 losers, you would have to drop $270,000 - that's  $5,000 a week for an entire year. (B.C. Lotteries says it's possible  the losses are overstated; maybe you would only have to lose $4,000 a  week to make the club.)
So there are at least 100 people with a gambling habit costing them  between $5,000 and $35,000 a week.
Which is fine with B.C. Lotteries.
"Those individuals are clearly able to make that kind of expenditure  without an impact on their economic security," corporation  vice-president Kevin Gass said. "I think that's really the way that  one has to look at it, and I think it's dangerous to try to guess or  judge based on that level of expenditure." Here's a useful rule. Anytime some says "clearly," they're about to  make a claim that can't be supported. (And anytime someone says  "frankly"? they're about to try and dupe you.) B.C. Lotteries has no way of knowing whether these people can afford  to gamble away this money, or whether they are being destroyed by an  addiction. One gambler spent an average 26 hours a week over the  course of year, losing $100 an hour.
The corporation's interest is in increasing losses by British  Columbians so it can deliver its commitment to the government. And the  government is keen to support the corporation in achieving its goals. As the government cuts funding to prevent problem gambling and help  those whose lives are being destroyed, it is about to become the first  jurisdiction in North America to launch online casino gambling. The government's own responsible gambling website notes Internet  betting involves risks of addiction and big losses. People can be  hooked; they can be drunk or stoned or desperate. And they can go for  hours, chasing their losses.
The government increased the limit on weekly losses from $120 to  $9,999. (That's $1 below the amount that requires reporting of  suspicious transactions to the federal government to fight money  laundering.)
You can make an argument for government gambling as an alternative to  illegal operations.
But in B.C., the goal is to grab cash from citizens by enticing them  to lose more.
Gordon Campbell and the Liberals used to think it was wrong to create  a province of losers and contribute to crime and family breakdown. Now, they care more about the money.
Footnote: The Liberals ran in 2001 on a promise to halt the expansion  of gambling. Since then, they have quadrupled the number of slot  machines or VLTs, doubled the money they take from losers, allowed  alcohol to be served to be gamblers and gone online. The number of  people with severe gambling problems doubled between 2002 and 2007,  according to the government's data.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Even Crown corporations need lobbyists, it seems

Andrew MacLeod has an important story over at The news hook is that the newly hired head of the B.C. Innovation Council, claimed $167,342 in expenses during his first six months on the job. Most of the money went to cover moving costs for Dean Rockwell, who had been based in Atlanta.
But the real big questions relate to an earlier report by MacLeod. (It's the sidebar to the main story on post-secondary institutions hiring lobbyists, also a bizarre phenomenon.)
Rockwell was hired in October 2008. Two months later, Jason Herbert, a Vancouver lawyer, and Allen Salton registered as lobbyists for the Crown corporation. Their goal was to influence the government on "CEO compensation," according to the registration. Herbert's law firm was paid $80,469 during the period, but that could include other work for the council.
So a Crown corporation, dependent on taxpayer funding, needed lobbyists to talk the government about a raise for the CEO. What happened to picking up the phone and calling the cabinet minister responsible for the corporation?
What does it say when even Crown corporation CEOs and boards think they need help in getting the government to look favorably at their concerns?
And where does that leave people who don't know, or can't afford, lobbyists?

Another outsider gets top government job

The news that Jessica McDonald is quitting the top management job in the B.C. government didn’t surprise most people, since they didn’t know she had the job in the first place.
But for the 35,000 people working for the government, lobbyists, politicians and those interested in how things work, McDonald’s surprise departure this week was a big deal.
The job title is deputy minister to the premier. But in a management sense, it’s something like being CEO of a corporation with $35 billion in revenue.
Premier Gordon Campbell set the direction, but McDonald figured out how to get there. The deputy minister sits at the point where politics and the public sector come together. The deputies in each ministry reported to her, not their ministers. The premier counts on both policy and political advice.
McDonald was a surprise hire when Ken Dobell, her predecessor, left the job after the 2005 election. She was 35, easily young enough to be Dobell’s daughter. and had little management experience.
McDonald’s work in Victoria began as a legislative intern when the Bill Vander Zalm government imploded. She worked then with Campbell’s chief of staff Martyn Brown. She moved into government, including a brief stint as a mid-level manager, and then started a consulting company. And she was married to Mike McDonald, who supported and worked with Campbell since his days as Vancouver mayor.
In 2003, Campbell hired her as deputy minister for special projects, a job that offered experience across government. She then got the job of planning for the Liberals’ second term, reporting directly to Campbell. It was a powerful position.
A year later she was the head of the public service.
It was controversial, naming an outsider with little experience to the top job.
Reviews of McDonald’s tenure are mixed. She brought focus to supporting and strengthening the workforce, a priority from day one in the job. Unfortunately, her last months were spent in downsizing.
McDonald also played a big role in striking a land use deal on the Great Bear Rainforest, generally considered a success. And she led the New Relationship with First Nations, which hasn’t worked so well.
The most common criticism was that McDonald grabbed too much control of big files, centralizing decision-making and pushing ministry management aside. Among other things, that created a bottleneck when projects bogged down in the premier’s office.
McDonald wanted to be in control. I had one of the few — maybe only — media interviews with her soon after she took the job, for a magazine. It took months of pushing to get an hour. At the outset, McDonald said she wouldn’t answer questions about herself — a problem, since the piece was a profile. (You can read it here; it was pretty good.)
There has been some talk that McDonald is responsible for the chaos since the botched February budget, but that’s not accurate. Decisions on the HST and the cuts to services — and the way they have been communicated — were made by the premier’s officer.
McDonald said she decided it was a good time to leave. There is no reason to doubt that.
Allan Seckel, who is replacing her, also has an unconventional path to the top job. He was a high-level Vancouver litigation lawyer, with clients from the airport authority to Bon Koo, an entrepeneur sued for $8 million by the Chinese government.
In 2003, the government launched a national search for a deputy minister to the attorney general, a cabinet post then held by Geoff Plant.
And Seckel, a former law partner of Plant who helped with his first election campaign, emerged as the winner.
Again, what’s striking about this appointment to the top job is the lack of experience. Seckel has done the deputy AG job and had some short-term experience in other areas. But he’s gone from lawyer to deputy minister to head of a giant organization — 35,000 employees, remember — with little practical management experience.
Seckel hasn’t made any strong impression, good or bad, in his current job. The Attorney General’s Ministry has been slow to bring forward needed legislation and has made little progress on reducing delays and costs in the court system. But again, that likely reflects the politicians’ choices.
The changes do matter. Seckel will bring his priorities and political and policy advice to the premier. He’s also likely to shuffle deputy ministers, bringing more change.
And he’s starting in the job at a very tough time.