Opinion

Graham Steele: VLT gambling — there’s more to the story

Andrew Younger, the minister responsible for Part I of the Gaming Control Act, announced Wednesday that the "MyPlay System" on video lottery terminals will soon be discontinued.

Steele offers insights into VLTs after nearly 2 years as the minister responsible for gambling

The My-Play System was first introduced by the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation in 2010 to prevent non-problem gamblers from becoming addicted to video lottery terminals.

Andrew Younger, the minister responsible for Part I of the Gaming Control Act, announced Wednesday that the "My-Play System" on video lottery terminals will soon be discontinued.
 
The idea behind My-Play is simple: You can’t use the VLT machines without a My-Play card, and the card is programmed to deliver information about your gambling, like how long you've been playing and how much you've spent.
 
The My-Play system was intended, first and foremost, to reduce problem gambling. The system would give the gambler more information, and more information should lead to better decisions — or so the theory goes.
 
If My-Play wasn’t reducing problem gambling — and the minister says it wasn’t — then yanking it in advance of a $1-million memory upgrade makes sense. Why throw good money after bad?

More to the story

But there’s so much more to the story than that.

When it comes to VLT gambling in Nova Scotia, there’s always more to the story.
 
From June 2009 to January 2011, I was the minister responsible for gambling. That portfolio, along with liquor, caused me more headaches than my "big" portfolio, finance. That’s because both liquor and gambling can be enjoyed by most people problem-free, but for some, the effects are devastating. 
 
Prohibition of liquor and gambling is not the answer — surely history teaches us that much — which leaves for the government, and the minister, an uneasy attempt at balance between access and control. There’s never a "right" answer.
 
VLTs have been a controversial issue in Nova Scotia politics for a long time, at least as far back as the late 1980s. It is indisputable that they are addictive for a small percentage of gamblers, who pour their money and their very souls into the machines.
 
Government attempts to reduce VLT addiction have taken various forms: providing information about addiction resources; restricting the number and location of machines; restricting hours; regulating the speed and features of the machines; and most recently, the My-Play cards.
 
The My-Play cards are a product of Sydney-based Techlink Industries. The Conservative government bought the system from Techlink in 2008, and when I became the minister in 2009, the system was being rolled out across the province.

At that point, you could still play on the machines without using a card. The main question during my time as minister was whether to make My-Play mandatory. The Dexter government did, in fact, make it mandatory as part of its March 2011 gambling strategy, though at that point I was no longer the minister.
 
When it came to VLTs, there was always lots going on behind the scenes.
 
First, there was John Xidos, principal owner of Techlink. He’s a colourful character, and I’ll leave it at that.  

The provincial government has poured millions of dollars into Techlink over the years. Yes, it mattered that the Techlink jobs were in Sydney. The government eventually took an equity stake in Techlink, creating a pure conflict of interests — how can the government objectively evaluate a system produced by a company which it partly owns? 
 
Then there were the owners of the bars and lounges where VLTs live. They were always opposed to the My-Play system. They lobbied against its introduction, and they lobbied against its being made mandatory. I have no doubt they lobbied the McNeil government to have it removed. To them, My-Play represents a loss of revenue, full stop.
 
People say that the government is addicted to VLT revenue, but the real secret of VLTs in Nova Scotia is this: many bars, lounges, and legions would fold without VLT revenue. And I have yet to meet the government MLA who will not blanch at the prospect of "their" Legion closing because of something their government did. It’s unthinkable.
 
That’s why every party talks tough in opposition — bans, plebiscites, etc. — but once in government, settles for some version of the status quo.
 
Minister Younger is already being roundly criticized. The opposition Conservatives call the decision "immoral." John Xidos is mad. Anti-gambling activists accuse the minister of a revenue grab.
 
They’re all wrong. My-Play is intended to reduce problem gambling. If it isn’t doing that, then the government is right to dump it. 
 
Yesterday’s announcement would have been better, though, if it had included a Plan B. 
 
Because those addicted gamblers are still out there.

About the Author

Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.

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