It appears no one really cares that the Manitoba government is getting into the online-gambling business.
Dutifully reported by local media when it was announced, the plan will see Manitoba Lotteries partner with British Columbia’s Lottery Corp. to launch a regulated website in 2013. The venture will offer casino games and a peer-to-peer poker network. It has received very little attention since the announcement, either positive or negative. (Of course, it could be that most people simply missed the announcement altogether, given that it was made on the day before the Easter long weekend; the same day rapid transit launched in Winnipeg.)
Maybe it’s a sign of the times. Whether it’s the lottery or bingo or scratch tickets or VLTs or a table game at a casino or now, provincially delivered online poker, maybe gambling has managed, for the most part, to shed its reputation as a social vice and become just another part of our cultural landscape.
To the provincial government, however, gambling is not merely a recreational activity. It’s a source of revenue — and a not-insignificant source, at that: Manitoba Lotteries earned the province an estimated $348.3 million in income during the 2011-12 fiscal year. In fact, it may surprise you to learn that gambling brings in more annual revenue than liquor sales or tobacco taxes.
This revenue is spent on education and health programs, social services, community economic development projects, grants to municipalities and the Winnipeg Police Service. All are things that Manitobans value, which is another reason why, like it or not, gambling is not going anywhere anytime soon; certainly not when the province is looking down the barrel of a billion-dollar deficit.
Oh sure, it may ruin a few lives here and there — just as alcohol and tobacco do — but, given its money-making potential and current fiscal realities, it’s a trade-off we’re apparently willing to make. Besides, 2% of net gambling income is used to fund responsible gambling programs so we can all rest easy and feel no guilt about the rather awkward situation in which we find ourselves, dependent on an activity that’s sometimes harmless fun and sometimes anything but. (The province plans to go above and beyond the 2% commitment when it launches online gaming, giving an additional 3% of net profits to the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba and a further 15% to support expanded programming for aboriginal sport and recreational activities. One assumes gambling will not qualify as one of them.)
Relatively new and growing, online gambling is a lucrative industry; it’s easy to understand why Manitoba wants in. Currently, some 2,000 unregulated sites (many of them located offshore) drain approximately $37 million from the province each year. Manitoba Lotteries is predicting the soon-to-launch provincial site will bring in $1.5 million in net income in its first year of operation and earn about $17 million by the end of 2018.
More revenue is good news and I suppose it’s unfair to begrudge Manitoba for seizing on a money-making opportunity; other provinces have, too. Still, I’m not sure that this plan is a good-news story so much as an admission of resignation. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em — and, for good or for bad, we’ve joined ’em.