Cheol Joon Baek
Darth Vader showed up at Monday's casino consultation in Etobicoke. Or some guy in a Darth Vader costume. He got the boot for carrying a sign registering his opposition to a Toronto casino.
The real comedy, though, was provided by Mayor Rob Ford, the death star of leaders himself, who popped in to extol the virtues of gambling as a money-maker for a cash-strapped city.
The mayor reportedly talked about a casino bringing "good-paying union jobs" to town. That's right, the guy who wants to break the back of city unions by privatizing anything that isn't nailed down is now pumping the benefits of a casino for organized labour. Hilarious.
Let's not let the facts get in the way of selling the city on the value of gambling palaces so big-money casino owners can make a killing. Ford certainly isn't, despite almost daily reminders and volumes of studies on the failure of gambling dens as catalysts for sustainable economic development. Not to mention the polls consistently showing that Torontonians want nothing to do with a casino. In the casino debate, if it can be called a debate at this point, given the flimsy consultation process, reality is no obstacle.
The army of lobbyists deployed by Las Vegas high rollers at Queen's Park and City Hall are seeing to that.
The onslaught by casino-pushing billionaires and CEOs to turn public and political opinion in their favour is unlike anything we've seen before.
Says Ken Greenberg, celebrated architect and urban designer and No Casino Toronto advocate:"The public is blissfully unaware how much money is being spent and how much casino companies are prepared to spend [to make a Toronto casino a reality]." Greenberg may be understating the situation, as remarkable as that may seem.
The roster of lobbyists and lawyers hired by MGM, Caesars and Las Vegas Sands Corp., the big three in the running here, includes this city's top power brokers.
Among them is Robert Prichard, who is better known as chair of the Metrolinx board and former head of Torstar. He's registered with the province's integrity commissioner as a lobbyist for MGM, the perceived frontrunner in the race, in his capacity as chair of Torys LLP, one of the continent's most influential law firms.
Prichard distances himself from his involvement on the casino file in an email:
"Torys is acting for MGM on the casino file, and I am part of the Torys team. We have no current lobbying mandate or activities.
"It was probably unnecessary to register given the nature of our legal work for MGM, but our rule is ‘when in doubt, register,' so that it's public who we are acting for in case we have any interaction with provincial officials on the file."
Prichard is also on the board of directors of Onex Corporation, which has expressed interest in a Toronto-area casino. The holdings of the multi-billion-dollar company owned by Gerry Schwartz include Tropicana Las Vegas, a casino in Edmonton and Lethbridge and two in Calgary.
This is not to single out Prichard, but simply to illustrate the influence being brought to bear. He's not the only mover and shaker in the world of high finance on the casino file, merely a drop in that bucket - albeit a high-profile one.
The provincial lobbyist registry lists some two dozen firms representing gambling interests at Queen's Park. Among them are some of the biggest lobbying companies in the game: Global Public Affairs, StrategyCorp, Sussex Strategy Group, Fleishman-Hillard in Canada, GCI Group, Hill+Knowlton Strategies and Counsel Public Affairs. The list goes on.
You can't go to a movie these days without being bombarded by pre-show advertising brought to you by the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) promoting the falsehood that economic salvation is around the corner in the neighbourhood casino.
The co-opting of the mainstream media has also begun in earnest.
The Star has given over its pages to special OLG advertising features masquerading as newspaper articles. Mainstream news outlets have spilled ink on odd manufactured "news" created by right-wing front groups like the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition, which is pushing a casino as a way to finance subway-building.
This week the big-money PR effort went online as the Globe handed over space on its website to a "special information feature" courtesy of OLG that quoted its chair, Paul Godfrey, on the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and endless millions a casino could net for Toronto annually.
"The possibilities are virtually limitless," the piece concludes breathlessly.
There's no end to the major players' hype. There are questions, too, about the legitimacy of the ongoing public consultations.
The first of five such consultations was taken over by lefty councillors at City Hall last week amid complaints about its open-house structure allowing no public input. Attendees were greeted by maps of four possible casino sites - downtown, the Ex grounds, the port lands and Woodbine Racetrack - and asked to complete a survey full of what some describe as leading questions.
The format of the consultations has been slightly changed so attendees can now ask questions of staff in attendance. That change was made because of a staff debriefing after the first consultation; the city's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat reportedly raised objections about the format, while city manager Joe Pennachetti saw no need to change it. As if we needed more evidence that when it comes to a casino, that are goose may be cooked.
Keesmaat doesn't think a casino is inevitable. "Is the fix in? I'm not cynical about these things. I hope not. We're all doing a lot of hard work."
3 things you can do to say no to a casino:
1. Volunteer at nocasinotoronto.com.
2. Download the No Casino Toronto petition and get your friends and family to sign it.
3. Send an email to your local councillor.
5 casino misconceptions
1. Casinos reinvest in local communities.
False. Most of the profits end up in the pockets of outside investors.
2. Casinos attract more tourism.
Not true. They actually suck entertainment dollars out of existing tourist destinations.
3. A casino would mean more tax revenue for Toronto.
In the short term, yes, but the social costs outweigh the economic benefits.
4. A casino would create thousands of jobs.
OLG's plans include closing slots at racetracks across the province, which will jeopardize more jobs - up to 60,000 in the horse racing and breeding industry alone.
5. Casinos do not contribute to crime.
Wrong. Casinos are hot spots for money laundering. Studies also show an increase in alcohol-related crime.