Opinion

Why Atlantic Lottery is the best and worst example of regional co-operation

In practice, there is no organization more confused than the Atlantic Lottery Corporation about how decisions get made, says CBC political analyst Graham Steele.

In practice, there is no organization more confused than the ALC about how decisions get made, says Steele

A joint audit by four provincial auditors general found excessive spending on travel and entertainment by the Atlantic Lottery Corporation. (CBC)

The Atlantic Lottery Corporation is a strange beast. It is simultaneously the best and worst example of Atlantic co-operation. 

I was the Nova Scotia minister for gambling from 2009 to 2011, so I saw the contradictions up close — the same contradictions that the four Atlantic auditors general highlighted in their report on Wednesday.

Bigger stick

Canada's four smallest provinces are crowded together on the East Coast. It stands to reason we could carry a bigger stick in Confederation if we could work as a team. 

Forget the constitutional chimera of Maritime Union. I'm talking about basic co-operation to find synergy and efficiency in government operations. 

Despite the obvious benefits of a four-province front, the successes over the past 40 years have been paltry.  

Atlantic harness racing? Tiny.

Atlantic provinces higher education commission? Better. 

Atlantic Lottery Corporation? Bigger, and sensible. 

In theory. 

Equal say

In practice, there is no organization more confused than the ALC about how decisions get made.

When I became gambling minister in 2009, I was faced with an ALC that was independent, and not in a good way. 

Each province had an equal say, which meant that no one province could get the ALC to do anything. This mattered because, for example, I found the other provinces were more laissez-faire about responsible gambling than Nova Scotia.

The members of the ALC board considered their first duty to be to the ALC as a corporate entity, not the province that appointed them. That may be fine in the private sector where there are real shareholders, but it doesn't work in the public sector. 

Layers of confusion

On top of that, I had to work through the Nova Scotia Gaming Corporation (as it then was), which had its own board with its own ideas. 

Then there was the question of who exactly could give advice or direction to the NSGC in its dealings with the ALC. The minister? The minister's political staff? The premier's office? Or did every little thing have to go to cabinet?

In the end, I felt the ALC board and management took advantage of the layers of confusion. They had their own ideas about the future of gambling. The Atlantic provinces weren't big enough for them. They wanted to be the go-to portal for internet gambling. They wanted international deals. 

They weren't going to let a mere provincial government hold them back. 

Ticket silliness

Despite being owned by four provincial governments, the ALC has historically resisted public-sector accountability. 

Two decades ago, Nova Scotia's auditor general had to fight for the right to audit the ALC. Eventually the ALC gave in. 

Within the last decade, the ALC rejected the idea they were subject to freedom of information laws. Eventually the ALC gave in. 

The ALC's attitude, as I experienced it, was that the shareholder governments were an obstacle to be managed.

Say no to free tickets

It may have been the only government-owned entity that had full-time government-relations staff.

It also explains the silliness about concert tickets being offered to politicians, political staff, and senior civil servants.

(Note to people in public office: The next time anyone offers you a "free" concert ticket, just say no. If there is business to be discussed, discuss it in your office during business hours. It's not complicated.)

A cautionary tale

All of my experience with the ALC was with a different CEO, and a largely different management team and board. In the five years since the gambling portfolio was taken from me, ALC governance changes have been made, though evidently — based on Thursday's report — not nearly enough. 

The ALC does good work, considering the business line it's in. It's a good employer, and its headquarters in Moncton is a thriving place, full of smart young people. Each year, it returns many millions of dollars to the Nova Scotia treasury.

At the same time, it is an outstanding cautionary tale for Atlantic co-operation of any kind. 

How do decisions get made when there are four equal shareholders, each with their own policy, pace and political culture?

If everybody's equally in charge, then nobody's in charge. 

And if nobody's in charge, you end up with the confusion, inefficiency and wasteful frolics that our auditors general documented in yesterday's report

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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