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Ontario resorts such as the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls can no longer count on a steady stream of American customers. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Ontario resorts such as the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls can no longer count on a steady stream of American customers. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Ontario Liberals go all in on casinos Add to ...

At the start of this past week, a government run by a premier who once pronounced himself “not attracted” to the idea of opening more casinos announced it will do just that. And by the way, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation will also delve into the online gambling market, start selling lottery tickets more aggressively, and likely start taking more bets on sporting events.

By the end of the week, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals looked downright consistent on the matter, if only by comparison.

State-run gambling, which largely involves getting people with limited resources to pay voluntary taxes, has long tied Ontario politicians in knots. And while the Liberals have abruptly landed on a reasonably coherent position - that if the deficit-plagued province is going to remain in the gambling business, it might as well finally go all in - the province’s other two major parties appear to be confusing even themselves.

Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives, who are usually nothing if not committed to straightforward messaging, were stepping all over themselves even before Monday’s announcement. To the apparent discomfort of Mr. Hudak, whose normal position is that government shouldn’t be in the business of propping up otherwise unsustainable businesses, Tory MPPs vehemently objected to the idea that the government would stop using gambling profits (which would otherwise go into general revenues) to help the horse-racing industry.

This week, Mr. Hudak himself got in on the act. Having previously argued that the province should turn gambling over to the private sector - something OLG now plans to shift toward, in terms of operations - he might have been expected to appreciate a more hard-minded approach. Instead, he lamented that slot machines in his hometown of Fort Erie will be shut down, and jobs lost as a result, despite the fact that there’s more money to be made by putting them elsewhere instead.

In effect, the Tories have defaulted to the position that more than generating profits, gambling much serve some alternate goal - mostly in the form of regional economic development. That this conflicts with their supposed aversion to government “picking winners and losers” seems to be lost on them.

As for the provincial New Democrats, who now purport to have moral objections to gambling expansion, it might be unfair to point out that they’re the ones who introduced casinos in the first place. After all, that was in the era when they were led by Bob Rae - for whom the NDP no longer has to offer any explanations - and by most accounts the decision tore their party apart.

But even if they’re given a free pass on that front, the NDP seems to be most conflicted of all.

Ostensibly speaking on behalf of his party, veteran MPP Rosario Marchese railed against the idea of a new casino in Toronto by calling Mr. McGuinty and Finance Minister Dwight Duncan “gambling addicts” who “want to balance the budget on the backs of desperate families who want to become millionaires.”

That would have been an endearingly principled position, if not for the fact that the NDP simultaneously joined Mr. Hudak in complaining that it was “short-sighted” to close gambling facilities elsewhere in the province.

To some extent, the contradictions can be chalked up to the nature of opposition politics; ideological consistency is difficult to achieve when there are points to be scored in ridings that parties want to pick up.

But the struggles with government’s involvement in gaming go beyond that. Really, there are only two principled positions: Either it’s an acceptable revenue generator or it’s not. Yet for decades, governments of all stripes have gotten away with being half-pregnant - relying upon some gambling revenues, but not maximizing them because they were too busy holding their noses or trying to cloak their hunt for profits in higher purpose.

The Liberals have finally decided to go all the way. It may or may not be an intellectually honest position, given Mr. McGuinty’s past misgivings. But at least it is a position, which puts them one up on their rivals.

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