Any day now, a bill that has been the subject of especially heavy lobbying will become law, legalizing betting on a sports game. Sports leagues pushed politicians for it, because they think it means big money for professional teams. Last fall, in the midst of the pandemic, the Liberal government decided to back it, too.
But do we know everyone who lobbied the government to get it done? Did Larry Tanenbaum, the individual with the biggest interest in Canada’s biggest teams – including the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Toronto FC – speak to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, or his aides, to advocate for the bill?
We don’t know. They won’t say. Neither Mr. Trudeau’s press secretary nor the spokesperson for Maple Leaf Sports – the sports powerhouse of which Mr. Tanenbaum is chair and 25-per-cent shareholder – will answer the question.
That underlines a major loophole in Canada’s lobbying laws. They’re supposed to require moneyed interests to report when they are lobbying to change Canada’s laws or policies. But there’s a big loophole.
Companies don’t have to register “in-house” lobbying unless it takes up more than 20 per cent of an employee’s time. Below that threshold, they don’t have to report their lobbying contacts.
Successive lobbying commissioners have called for governments to fix that. Current commissioner Nancy Bélanger did so this month, when she concluded the unregistered lobbying activities of Rob Silver, husband of Mr. Trudeau’s chief of staff Katie Telford, didn’t break the rules. The loophole, Ms. Bélanger wrote, “allows for a substantial volume of in-house lobbying activity to go unreported.”
There was a lot of registered lobbying, and public advocacy, for the sports betting bill, by gambling business, sports apps, provincial lottery authorities, and by pro sports representatives, who see it as leading to new revenues from sponsorships, marketing partnerships, and data sales. Canadian Football League Commissioner Randy Ambrosie told a Senate committee legalized sports betting might be the biggest opportunity the CFL has ever had.
So it’s not ridiculous to wonder if Mr. Tanenbaum, with his sizeable sports interests, spoke to Mr. Trudeau, or his staff, about it. The two know each other. Mr. Tanenbaum has Liberal history, having served as the party’s chief fundraiser under Paul Martin, and he has been a reguar donor to the party.
A spokesman for the PMO, Alex Wellstead, would not say if they discussed it. In an e-mail, he said PMO staff “meet regularly with stakeholders and organizations” and lobbyists are expected to report as the law requires. But again, the law has a big hole.
David Haggith, a spokesman for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, said in an e-mail that MLSE executives did not make representations to the government on the bill, but as for Mr. Tanenbaum, he is a supporter of single sports betting, and “we are not at liberty to share the scope of private conversations.”
He noted Mr. Tanenbaum’s support for single sports betting is shared by commissioners of six sports leagues.
That’s true. Lots of folks have backed the legalization of single sports betting – betting on a single game rather than a parlay. There are critics who fear it will promote more gambling or lead to match fixing, but the gaming industry makes a pretty good argument that Canadians already spending billions on offshore online gambling.
But that doesn’t mean we should have to guess who was lobbying for it, or who called whom.
There have been bills to legalize sports betting banging around for a decade, proposed by backbench MPs from various parties. They languished because governments never made them a top priority.
But last November, Mr. Trudeau’s government tabled their own bill to legalize it. In February, they made a deal to support Conservative backbencher Kevin Waugh’s similar bill, because it could be passed more quickly.
MPs from all parties supported it, especially those from cities with casinos, such as Windsor. But the pandemic added urgency. Stadiums were empty, and teams were losing revenue. They wanted the gambling bill done. After years, it is being pushed into law.
A lot of people will like that. Some won’t. But we should all know which powerful business figures, if any, had called Mr. Trudeau to ask for it.
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