For casino foes, there was an important vote in the legislature Thursday afternoon, March 28 - that is, if you believe in symbolic gestures. Then again, it may be something more, even the out the Libs are looking for to kill Paul Godfrey's gamble with Toronto's future.
The PCs joined the NDP to pass a motion calling on the Liberal government to delay its implementation of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation's (OLG) so-called "modernization" (read privatization) plan until the 2014 municipal elections. That's so municipalities that may want a casino can add that question to the ballot.
It was a rare bit of cooperation.
But if Torontonians can get behind the NDP's effort on the casino issue, and forgive an axis with the evil Tories (despite the fact that Hudak & Co. want to sell us even further down the privatization river), it's harder to justify the party's teaming up with the PCs to support Bill 3, aka the Gasoline Tax Fairness For All Act.
Don't let the name fool you - it's anything but fair to municipalities currently receiving cash from the gas tax to fund public transit. The bill, tabled by Tory MPP John Yakabuski, proposes to give cities that don't have public transit a slice of the tax take to - wait for it - build and maintain roads instead.
The NDP is calling its backing "symbolic." More on that one later.
But first, the casino commotion. The motion tabled by NDP MPP Taras Natyshak, also calls on the Grits to "freeze" changes to the slots-at-racetracks program, which the horse racing industry says is crucial for its survival.
But whether anything will ever come of it is unclear. The motion is non-binding, which means there's nothing forcing the government to take action. It's merely meant to express the will of the legislature, which in a less partisan setting might have more weight. In the current climate at Queen's Park, the motion won't be taken further now that it's been sent into procedural purgatory.
But with public and political sentiment opposed to OLG's strategy - broadly, to expand and privatize internet and "land-based" gaming, including allowing video gaming at charity bingos - the Libs may well decide to bring the matter forward themselves. The opposition parties may have given the Libs a way to cash in their chips on OLG's plan, about which Premier Kathleen Wynne, in contrast to predecessor Dalton McGuinty, is less enthusiastic. It's possible, despite the allure of big gambling revenue for a cash-strapped province. Even the NDP thinks so. Or, knowing that move is in the cards, the opposition parties wanted to put their money on it, too.
"The pressure is mounting on the issue of transparency on the part of the OLG," says Natyshak. "[The Liberals] may want to take a pause. I'm eternally optimistic that the government will see the light. This motion affords them the opportunity."
Natyshak uttered that last bit with surprisingly little sarcasm. The floor may indeed have fallen out from under OLG's plans. Wynne's crew has signed transition funding agreements with a number of racetracks, three more last week (nine in all so far).
Natyshak argues that won't save horse racing. It's the size of the purses that attracts breeders to races, and revenue from slots pays for the big prize money. It's also true, however, that under the old system, cash winnings were leaving the province with American horse owners.
The Ontario Federation of Agriculture and Dennis Mills, CEO of Racing Future, a key lobbyist for the horse racing industry (and Wynne leadership supporter), have praised the government's efforts on the file.
A three-person panel struck by the government, which includes former cabinet ministers John Snobelen (Tory) and Elmer Buchanan (Bob Rae-era NDP), has also said it would be a mistake to reinstate the slots program, which "has provided far more money than was needed to stabilize the industry - its original purpose - and has done so without compelling the industry to invest in a better consumer experience."
When Rural Affairs Minister Jeff Leal made that point during Thursday's debate, while horse industry types stared down from the visitors' gallery, the proceedings quickly descended into spectacle. The PCs beat their chests to take credit for doing more than anybody on the planet to save the horse racing industry, and the NDP chided the PCs for having ulterior motives, namely, privatizing gambling holus-bolus.
It was quite the scene, the shouting, finger-pointing and gesturing almost breaking into a shoving match between PC and NDP MPPs in the aisle between their benches.
In these heady days at Queen's Park, with talk of an election perpetually in the air, the choreography is just as important as the lawmaking. The casino/horse racing question is one of the issues exposing the rural-urban divide that some parties are trying to exploit, and others to heal.
The other - giving rise to a convenient but uneasy PC-NDP alliance - is Bill 3, which would mean less money from gas taxes for the 81 Ontario municipalities (out of 440) that have public transit. It passed second reading last month and has been sent to committee.
Northern NDP members spoke in favour of the proposal, including party house Leader Gilles Bisson, saying it sheds light on an important issue: the lack of infrastructure funding to fix roads and bridges. For that we can thank the Harris Tories, who downloaded responsibility onto municipalities as part of their smaller-government-is-better-government binge back in the 90s. But wait. Don't we already over-subsidize roads?
Ancient history, but clearly some of the NDP's Toronto caucus are uncomfortable with the party's support for Bill 3. None of them was in the chamber when it came to a vote.
Davenport MPP Jonah Schein, NDP critic on environment and GTA issues, says he won't support the bill should it make its way out of committee, which he says won't happen since the Grits don't support it. So why the NDP backing? Schein says it's "symbolic." There's that word again.
"We suffer from divisive politics. We need to turn around consensus in Ontario. By being respectful and hearing the concerns of people in rural Ontario, I think we're going to get the support not just to reinvest in their communities but to invest in all our communities as well," Schein says. We can hope.