Friday, March 02, 2007

Les is wrong, B.C. is already into online gambling

So who are you going to believe, Solicitor General John Les, who says there's no way the government is getting into Internet gambling?
Or B.C Lotteries, which says it is already into online betting and plans to expand its offerings?
The smart money is against the minister. Especially because the evidence is there, in black and white in the budget documents and in full colour on the BC Lotteries' website.
Les, responsible for both increasing the take and reducing problem gambling, is the latest Liberal to end up in contortions since they were elected on a 2001 campaign promise "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families."
They did the opposite, but it took the Liberals years to quit denying the obvious. They didn't just break the promise, they'd smashed it into little bits.
Now the denial is around online gambling.
When Les was asked about the issue the legislature this month, he was dead assertive.
"I want to be very clear," he said. "There will be no Internet gaming conducted by the B.C. Lottery Corp. - period."
But only the day before, as part of the budget package, the lottery corporation's plan for this year was released, approved by Les.
"BCLC now offers a full range of gaming products including casinos, bingos and online gaming through PlayNow," the corporation reported. Note, "online gaming."
Les pitched the lottery's online effort as a convenience, just another way to sell existing lottery tickets.
But if you check out B.C. Lotteries' PlayNow website, you'll see he's wrong. It's online gambling, including some dubious efforts to separate unsuspecting people from their money.
B.C. Lotteries lets you bet on sports online, 24 hours a day.
You can gamble up to $200 a single round of online Keno, with a new game starting every five minutes.
Both those sound like online gambling.
And then there are the corporation's "interactive" games, a sort of a poor man's online VLT.
Take Bump & Volley. Players put down bets and then click on a ball with their mouse, trying to keep it in the air while moving it around symbols. Get the right ones and you win a prize.
Or the Road to Vancouver. Place your bets and click on squares to try and uncover symbols. Get the rights ones, advance through the levels and win cash.
Except it's a con. The mouse clicks, as the official game explanation and B.C. Lottery website explain, have no effect on the outcome.
When people put up their money a B.C. Lotteries computer determines whether the game will pay any money and how much. The clicking and spinning have no effect.
All that interaction is pretend. It just keeps the player involved.
And keeps him playing and playing. Researchers have found the illusion of control keeps people playing games longer, even while they're losing. They can tell themselves that next time they'll pick the right squares, or move the ball the right way. That's why slot machine designers are including touch screens to let players stop the spinning wheels.
It also is just less foolish to pretend to play a game then it is to sit there and pump money into bets that will inevitably, over anything other than the short term, produce losses.
Keno, sports betting and "interactive games" which try to bring the VLT experience into the home. That sure sounds like online gaming.
There are controls. You can't put more than $120 a week into your online account.
But it's hard to see how Les can be so emphatic in denying that online gaming is already happening.
And it's hard to see how this can be a good thing.
The lottery corporation plans calls for recruiting more gamblers, and taking more from each one, so it has to push into more seductive games, offered in more locations - including the home.
But the government's eagerness to keep pushing gambling is harder to understand.
Back in the old days, then opposition leader Gordon Campbell explained why he wouldn't expand gambling.
"I want to build an economy based on winners, not losers, and gambling is always based on losers,'' he said. "The only way government makes money on gambling is because you lose it."
Now his government is giving people the chance to become losers right in their own homes.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Energy plan aims in right direction

VICTORIA - There’s a few bits that should make you nervous in the provincial energy plan released Tuesday, but much more that indicates B.C. is on the right track.
The plan lacks detail to back up most of the big targets, a little disappointing given how long the government has to work on the file.
It's great to say that conservation efforts will cut projected energy consumption growth in half, but it would be useful to know the cost and how consumers — commercial and residential — will be motivated to take the necessary steps.
And there are worries about subsidies to business and the somewhat vague intention to use BC Hydro as an agent of "social, economic and environmental" change.
The Liberals' moves since 2001 to put Crown corporations on a firmer business footing were welcome. For BC Hydro, that meant a focus on delivering cheap, secure power, with the B.C. Utilities' Commission protecting consumers.
But things have apparently changed. The government has decided there are some important policy objectives that can be advanced most effectively through B.C. Hydro.
The Crown corporation has a history as an agent of change. W.A.C. Bennett's dam-building spree some 50 years ago provided cheap electricity that has been a boon to the province's economy to this day. Consumers and industry both benefit from relatively inexpensive power, thanks to Bennett's enthusiasm for big hydro projects.
And, happily, those projects with their zero emissions have become highly favoured as concerns about climate change mount.
Bennett would likely have been pleased to see that B.C. is once again looking at a hydro megaproject, the Site C dam on the Peace River near Fort St. John.
It's tougher to build dams now, not so easy to dismiss the claims of those whose lives will be changed by the flooding or the warnings of environmental damage. Those issues — along with the $3.5-billion cost — have made the Liberals mighty nervous about the dam.
But the Peace River has already been dammed; this would just be another one. While the land consumed by the Site C project is significant, compensation could be part of the plan.
And the 900-megawatt capacity would deliver as much power as four greenhouse gas emitting gas-power plants, more cheaply.
Today, if a deal can reached with local First Nations, that makes the project highly attractive.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld is still being cautious, but the dam is very much back on the agenda.
Mostly, the new energy policy is about goals. The government doesn't want to need electricity imports by 2016 (a puzzling goal); all power projects will have zero "net" emissions by the same year, meaning gas-fired plants better start planting trees; by 2020 half the province's growth in power consumption should be offset by conservation measures. (You'll buy a more efficient fridge and turn down the heat to offset the effect of that new family from New Brunswick and all their appliances.)
Most of the goals make sense. The question open for debate now is how we get there.
For example, the government proposes a $25-million increase in electricity rates to provide money government can use to "help promising clean power technology projects succeed."
That should make you nervous. Government's track record in picking winners, as Liberal cabinet ministers use to point out, is not good. Companies with good ideas should be able to look to the market for funding.
And the plan calls for new energy efficiency standards for buildings by 2010. That's likely a good thing, but how much will the cost of an new house, or commercial building, be pushed up by the new regulations?
Those are the kinds of questions the government needs to be able to answer over the next few months. The framework energy policy points in the right direction.
Its credibility will rest on the government's ability to begin filling in the large blanks in the plan.
Footnote: The plan appears to heed the advice of the B.C. Progress Board, the useful advisory group created by the premier. It suggested in late 2005 that government, not B.C. Hydro, should be setting energy policy. "B.C. Hydro is seen by many concerned parties to heavily outweigh the ministry in staff and resources, which puts the government in the position of not being able to provide adequate oversight and direction," said the panel. That seems to be changing.