Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP continue to bet on gambling

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I was against it before I was for it. Politicians almost always act differently in government than they do in opposition. Policies they denounce from the outside, they embrace once they get inside. It's a variation on the do as I say, not as I do phenomenon.

Take Today's NDP. In opposition they denounced the expansion of gambling in Manitoba. In power? They have massively expanded gaming.

Remember how former premier Gary Doer stood in the legislature weaving tales of children home alone and hungry because their parents were out gambling? The NDP-then argued that VLTs were the "crack cocaine" of gaming and preyed on "weak and vulnerable" citizens.

One would think that after spending a decade opposing gaming, Manitoba would have seen a seismic reduction in its landscape since 1999.

So what did Today's NDP do to address this "false economy" and stop the "damage" to Manitoba as a result of VLTs? They hypocritically stepped on the accelerator and, through a series of successive regulatory and legislative changes, brought in the largest gaming expansion since VLTs were first introduced. They have:

-- Expanded the hours VLTs are accessible, turning them on at 9:00 a.m. instead of 11:00 a.m.

-- Allowed VLTs to be played on Sundays.

-- Replaced all VLTs, twice, at an estimated cost of $200 million as gamblers were getting "bored."

-- Opened two First Nations-run casinos with a third currently in the works.

-- Announced a new mini-casino in downtown Winnipeg.

-- Introduced online gaming.

So why the change of position? As it is often the case, money talks and in this situation you have a government intent on believing it can spend its way to prosperity.

In 1999/2000, Manitoba Lotteries brought in revenues of approximately $220 million. Currently they are on track to bring in an estimated $350 million. That is an annual increase of $130 million or 58 per cent. Unlike some other sources of revenues, gaming profits go to the big black hole called government operations.

The point here is not to debate gambling. Government gaming is here to stay. This is indisputable. Thanks to modern transportation and modern technology many Manitobans will gamble either online or at the next closest casino regardless of whether it is made available by the province. For a majority of Manitobans gaming is simply an entertainment choice.

The province would be a fool to not get in on the proverbial action. But the government should not take us for a fool when it comes to the intent behind its ongoing expansion. Sometimes, honesty is refreshing. Wouldn't it be nice to hear a politician say that "we need the money" as opposed to the usual bafflegab about "competitiveness" and "security."

Was it that long ago that the MLA for Thompson, Steve Ashton, was lamenting that not a day went by in his own constituency that some poor soul wouldn't come up to him to share the financial and personal devastation VLTs had brought to their lives and that of their families? So what has happened? Last week he announced a new downtown mini-casino and online gaming all in the same breath? The answer? He found himself in government and in charge of lotteries.

The real debate we should be having is not about government gaming, but whether consistent principle can exist in politics and, if not, whether we will continue to put up with it.

 

Shannon Martin is a Winnipeg political commentator.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2013 A11

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