A weight has been taken off the city: the grandiose downtown casino plan is no more, sent into oblivion at city council Tuesday, May 21.
A mixture of the savvy No Casino petition and lawn sign campaign, strong council leadership and the premier's refusal to let the casino lobby seduce Toronto with hosting fees far beyond those offered other municipalities has earned us this good news.
But as we savour the moment of release from a project that would have severely altered the landscape in the city's core, we should think about what we've learned from this debate about the economics and ethics of government-sponsored gambling.
The reality is, despite that resounding 40-to-4 defeat, the situation still leaves Torontonians part owners in the province's other 10 gambling locations. As participants, unwilling or not, in games of chance, what should we now focus on?
Perhaps we could start with last week's firing of Ontario Lottery and Gaming chair Paul Godfrey, a long-time Conservative, and the resulting resignation of the entire OLG board.
There's a golden opportunity here to change the direction of Ontario's gambling culture and deal with the unease so many feel about our reliance on gambling's $2-billion-a-year contribution to the province, 75 per cent of which goes to hospitals. Every time you go to an emergency ward, an outpatient clinic or get a bed, your treatment is partly paid for by games of chance.
It's unlikely that the province will eliminate this source of cash, which, including spinoffs, totals $3.8 billion in economic activity. The OLG expansion plan, including the proposed Toronto facility, was going to raise those stakes by another billion. This method of fundraising is already too entrenched (2 per cent of the provincial program budget) for any political party to want an immediate end to government-sanctioned gaming.
So maybe it's time for progressives to rethink the OLG and explore the idea of making Ontario a world leader in more ethical gambling.
Most Torontonians don't have a problem with small-scale operations. Who hasn't bought a lottery ticket, bet on a favourite sports team or visited a casino somewhere as part of a vacation or night out? But most of us agree we want to control the scale and impact of facilities and ensure that games of chance do as little harm as possible - even at the expense of profitability. This is especially important when almost 5 per cent of Canadians suffer from a gambling addiction.
So back to the OLG board. The body that just resigned was heavily controlled by business operatives: it included the COO of a major development and infrastructure firm, the managing director of a global investment bank, the CEO of a financial services firm, the former COO of Gateway Casinos, a rep from the distillery sector and a few others - none from the public health, mental health, addiction, social work or spiritual sectors.
If Kathleen Wynne really wants to change the gambling regime, she could start by supplementing business folk on the board with professionals who could bring a people-focused viewpoint to all the profit talk and push a harm reduction strategy. Picture a social worker, a faith leader, a sociologist and a psychiatric nurse helping to design gaming policy.
Currently, for example, OLG spends $40 million on addiction help, a figure many criticize as a paltry percentage of the total cash take.
Casinos use systems like Griffon or Biometrica and complex computer analyses that allow risk analyzers to tap into worldwide databanks and match photos, behaviour and other traits in order to determine if an individual is employing techniques that change the odds in his or her favour.
That surveillance is all about protecting the operation, but mechanisms to stop problem gamblers are limited - mainly because those players are a major source of revenue.
Some smaller, more ethically run casinos have experimented with more and better trained staff to help spot troubled players. A more diverse board could at last have a conversation about allocating resources in this direction and considering tighter controls on the number of slots, the most addictive of all games - or even the maximum value of a game.
As well, some casinos in the U.S. have removed ATMs, and we could go one step further by limiting total credit card advances on site. A new board could further limit the total size of allowable bets and restrict the number of bets made in a month. If casinos were required to close between midnight and 8 am, this too would curtail the damage and still maintain the entertainment value.
Leadership matters in public policy, and the premier now has the opportunity to fill these board positions with smart, socially conscious members who could find best ethical practices from global gambling and think beyond the bottom line - while we continue the debate over whether we actually want our health care bankrolled by the gaming business.