Religious zealotry not behind anti-VLT lobby

Peter
Peter Jackson
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The headline said it all: "Amended NDP bill on VLTs passes."

Well, no, that wasn't the crux of the story. It's the secondary headline that said it all: "Opposition parties support original motion, vote against amended one."

Last week, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, with the support of Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones, tabled a bill in the House of Assembly calling for increased funding for gambling addiction services, and an accelerated reduction of video lottery terminals (VLTs) with an aim to eliminating them entirely.

The headline said it all: "Amended NDP bill on VLTs passes."

Well, no, that wasn't the crux of the story. It's the secondary headline that said it all: "Opposition parties support original motion, vote against amended one."

Last week, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael, with the support of Liberal Leader Yvonne Jones, tabled a bill in the House of Assembly calling for increased funding for gambling addiction services, and an accelerated reduction of video lottery terminals (VLTs) with an aim to eliminating them entirely.

The governing Tories didn't like the wording.

They amended the bill such that the government should only "continue enhanced programming" rather than increase funding, and they removed any reference to eliminating the machines.

The amended bill was rendered meaningless.

Missing the point

In defending the changes, Finance Minister Tom Marshall conjured up a few well-worn excuses, none of which addresses the real issue:

those with gambling addictions will simply go underground if VLTs are eliminated;

many people don't want the government telling them whether they should gamble or not;

VLTs bring in much-needed funding for social programs; and

bar owners would face a big crunch if they didn't have VLTs to complement their revenue.

Let's address these "arguments" in order.

First, who are all these VLT users who'll be taking subterranean routes to feed their addictions? We're talking VLTs here, not poker games or racetrack betting, or even lotteries. It is these flashy machines, sitting in accessible establishments across the province, that are causing the most trouble. Will all these people - these ordinary folk from all walks of life who plant themselves down for hours in front of VLT displays - flock to underground lairs to keep losing their shirts? Hardly.

As for those libertarians who want the government to butt out of their pursuit of happiness, God bless them all. They'd be thrilled, I'm sure, if they could drink, smoke, do drugs, hire prostitutes, drive fast, hunt what they want when they want, parachute off government buildings and break their necks without Big Daddy telling them what to do. The rest of us, meanwhile, prefer to maintain a reasonable buffer against such anarchy. We balance freedom against reasonable restraints. And something that regularly destroys lives should be kept in check.

VLTs raise money for government coffers. That's true. But where is that money coming from? Some might call it a voluntary tax, but it's really a tax on the most vulnerable people in society - either those who are already down and out or those who are sucked in by their addictive personalities. Is this a reasonable source of revenue? People who end up on social programs because they go broke, or who end up in counselling, or who end up taking their own lives? People who destroy families and cause unimagined heartache? This is not taxation based on wealth or productivity. This is victimization.

As for bar owners, I recall sitting on a friend's front step near Springdale a few years ago. The community where he grew up now has absolutely no economic base. A small seafood plant had closed down decades before. There wasn't even a corner store in town. Nothing.

A woman who had lived nextdoor was home visiting from Fort McMurray. She explained how she was going to move home and open a bar - in a town with almost no employment. How would it survive? You guessed it. She was going to install a few VLTs to keep it afloat.

Is this what a bar is supposed to be? I would contend any bar that can't eke out a meagre existence on serving regular patrons is simply not viable. Shaking down gambling addicts is not a good business plan.

Way off the mark

Speaking of missing the point, commentator Bob Wakeham was on CBC Radio Monday morning to defend the libertarian point of view. Wakeham's own life, by his own admission, is an open book, and he's always ready and willing to discuss his trials and triumphs in dealing with his own vices.

On Monday, he dismissed the growing movement to eliminate VLTs as so much fire and brimstone, and referred to the two opposition leaders as "priestesses." (Religion is a favourite target of Wakeham's, and whether it's merited or not, he considers labelling someone a fundamentalist prude or "priestess" to be the ultimate insult.)

He's welcome to his opinion, of course, but his argument that archaic religious moralism is at play in the VLT debate is entirely off-base.

Yes, churches condemn gambling (hypocritically, I might add, in the case of Roman Catholics who regularly employ games of chance to raise funds). But there is more at play than religious dogma. The destructiveness of untethered gambling is irrefutable. It hits God-fearers and God-jeerers alike. It is a problem, plain and simple, and VLTs represent an obvious point at which a line should be drawn.

As Michael pointed out in the House, "The reason for my focusing on VLTs is not because I have a narrow vision of what the issues are - it is because VLTs are a very particular problem. ... That is why my motion was not a general motion on gambling."

By amending the motion, the government replaced any forward-thinking aspects with mere back-patting for measures already taken. It extolled how the total number of machines was recently reduced, and how money has already been allotted for addiction services.

When your child develops a severe allergy to a pet, however, it's not good enough to vacuum regularly and have plenty of Benadryl on hand. In the end, you have to get rid of the pet.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's commentary editor. E-mail: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: VLT, CBC Radio

Geographic location: Springdale, Fort McMurray

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