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Who Calls the Shots for BC Gambling Limits?

Emails indicate Minister Coleman was told just five days before BC's Lottery Corporation raised online gambling limits from $120 to $9,999.

By Andrew MacLeod 6 Jan 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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Minister Rich Coleman: Short notice?

When the British Columbia Lottery Corporation in August upped the online gambling limit, the provincial minister responsible said he had approved raising the limit from $120 to $9,999 a week.

But documents obtained by the Tyee show Rich Coleman was informed just days ahead of time that the change was being made.

"Coleman . . . said he approved the huge spike in betting limits to try to keep online gamblers closer to home in the cutthroat global market of Internet gambling," Vancouver Province columnist Michael Smyth reported on Aug. 20, noting the interview had happened a day earlier.

The column quoted Coleman: "I felt that if there were more people in British Columbia that were making the choice to go offshore into unregulated markets that it would be better for them if they were actually in a regulated market."

The minister appears to have been overstating his involvement in the decision, however. His own ministry responded to a freedom of information request saying it had no records at all related to the PlayNow decision.

And documents obtained from the BCLC through an FOI request suggest the Crown corporation notified the minister and other government officials just five days before the change was to be put in place.

Minister advised five days ahead

One of those documents is an email from BCLC's manager of lottery security Gordon Board to his counterparts in the human and social development ministry's gaming policy and enforcement branch, Stephen Lefler and Rick Saville.

"As per the attached 'advice to the Minister' document detailing that the BCLC has adjusted the amount that a PlayNow player can transfer into their weekly 'wallet' from $120.00 to $9999.99," Board wrote on Aug. 14. "This change will be in place on Aug. 19, 09."

The impulse to inform the ministry at all appears to have come relatively late in the game.

On Aug. 12, less than a week before the change was set to happen, BCLC's manager for eGaming, Greg Paolini, wrote a note to lottery security manager Board. Reminding Board of the coming change, Paolini asked, "Just wondering if GPEB is aware, or needs to be aware?" GPEB stands for the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch of the human and social development ministry.

Two days later an issues note outlining the new policy went from BCLC to human and social development assistant deputy minister Derek Sturko, executive director Sue Birge and analyst Kathy Code. BCLC sent the same message to public affairs bureau officials Paul Wooley, Seumas Gordon and David Haslam.

"BCLC has adjusted its PlayNow deposit limit to reflect the demands of the online gaming market," said the confidential Aug. 14 advice to minister document. "This change means players can determine how much to transfer into their PlayNow accounts each week. Limits are still in place, but players can make the conscious choice to set their limit and play within it."

It also noted, "In 2009/10, BCLC is estimating PlayNow will generate $34 million in gross revenue, up from $23.5 million for 2008/09. Revenue growth is anticipated through the introduction of new innovative games and growing consumer acceptance."

Several other sections of the document were deleted in the version sent to the Tyee.

Minister Coleman was unavailable by posting time.

Due diligence not done: Simpson

"It's a pretty dramatic policy change to go from $120 to $10,000," said New Democratic Party HSD critic, Shane Simpson. "That sort of change has implications."

Minister Coleman should have taken a full look at what effect the change would have on problem gambling and the potential for illegal activity, and then have the ability to make a decision, he said. "I find it pretty remarkable that Coleman wouldn't be aware of that," he said. "The minister should absolutely know, be comfortable and sign off on it."

Internet gambling attracts young people and attention needs to be paid to how expanding it affects them and others, Simpson said. "To not ask the questions about what the social policy obligations are and to not get any responses on that suggests to me the due diligence was never done," he said.

The 135 pages BCLC provided in response to a request for all records related to the decision to raise the betting limit include several that had information removed under sections of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act that allow government agencies to keep secret any records that provide policy advice, legal advice, or that may be harmful to law enforcement, a public body's financial interests or a third party's business interests.

Another 12 records were withheld in their entirety, the BCLC's cover letter said.

Most of what was released were internal BCLC documents developing and communicating the agency's messaging around the decision, as well as changes that needed to be made to the website.

Permission given in 2004

Coleman and the B.C. Liberals came into office in 2001 promising to get tough on gambling and limit the industry's expansion in the province. The party's often quoted election platform promised to "Stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families."

In 2003, as solicitor general, Coleman said, "Illegal gaming and internet gaming -- those are things we fight to stamp out."

Around the same time, however, Coleman gave the BCLC permission to start an internet gambling site and extended the agency more power to make decisions like the one about PlayNow's limits.

In a series of letters between 2002 and 2004, the Tyee reported in 2005, the government gave the BCLC more room to make decisions based on "business reasons."

Those changes included increasing the total number of slot machines in the province while allowing them to be put for the first time in B.C. into horse tracks and bingo halls. An Aug. 3, 2004 letter also included permission to start an Internet "lottery scheme" as long as it was in accordance with provincial policy and laws and met the Province's requirements to mitigate the risk of the involvement of problem gamblers.

The NDP's Simpson said the PlayNow decision is a good example of why the responsibilities for promoting gambling and for regulating it should be divided between different ministries and different ministers.  [Tyee]

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