It's time the Ontario government got out of the gambling business, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak said Monday, hinting that he also wants to privatize liquor sales.
The cash-strapped government, facing a $14.4-billion deficit, needs to re-evaluate everything it does to get out of businesses that are better run by the private sector and instead concentrate on services like health care and education, added Mr. Hudak.
"We're in 2012, not back in 1972, and what should government be focusing on, what are the core services," he asked.
"I'm going to argue to my last breath that it's hiring new nurses, putting new drugs on the formulary, not investing in new roulette wheels and slot machines."
The government, which gets about $2-billion a year from the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp., should not be both a promoter of gambling by owning the OLG and the regulator, through the Alcohol and Gaming Commission, said Mr. Hudak.
"I think government should get out of the day-to-day operations of gambling in the province of Ontario and instead be a tough, respected regulator, making sure it's an honest game with honest players," he said.
"But we don't need government running roulette tables and picking what kind of scratch-and-win tickets to sell at variety stores."
Mr. Hudak wouldn't say how much the province would save by having private operators run casinos and lotteries, something that would require an amendment to the Criminal Code, but said he was convinced it would mean a bigger return for taxpayers.
"I think a much better approach would be to have a bid, let's see what private sector operators can do with those sites," he said.
"I bet you they can run them at a lower cost to taxpayers, and returns will probably improve to the province."
OLG said it's already looking for private operators as part of a modernization plan that is designed to increase revenues and the annual dividend to taxpayers from casinos, slots and lotteries.
"OLG is expanding the engagement of the private sector to build and run day-to-day operations of existing and new sites, as well as develop new technology and games for lottery terminals," said OLG spokesman Tony Bitonti.
"Strictly regulated private sector providers would be responsible for funding and building any new sites, upon the recommendations made by OLG and approval from the minister and the host municipality."
Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said the Liberal government is "already privatizing the OLG" and seemed puzzled by Mr. Hudak's pledge.
"I didn't actually see a plan today, I just heard a lot of ideology," said Mr. Duncan.
"We are in fact bringing in the private sector to run the machines and bring in new technology."
Mr. Hudak was asked if he also intends to get the government out of the liquor and broadcasting businesses — something the Tories have proposed in the past — and said people should "stay tuned," promising more announcements later this week.
Mr. Duncan said the Liberals considered selling the Liquor Control Board, but decided it was not a good idea to give up ongoing revenue for a one-time pay out.