CANADA

Nova Scotia’s gamble

SUSANNE HILLER January 9 1995
CANADA

Nova Scotia’s gamble

SUSANNE HILLER January 9 1995

Nova Scotia’s gamble

CANADA

SUSANNE HILLER

With the spin of a wheel, the Nova Scotia government has managed to antagonize a sizable number of its constituents. The government’s plan to license two casinos—one in Halifax and the other in the Cape Breton community of Sydney—has drawn sharp condemnation from economists, social workers, psychologists, police officers and the province’s main Christian churches. Recent opinion polls suggest that most Nova Scotians are also concerned that casino gambling will bring with it an array of social ills, including an influx of organized crime and increased prostitution. But despite the widespread opposition, Premier John Savage’s Liberal government announced in mid-December that a partnership led by the international hotel chain ITT Sheraton had won its bid to open the Nova Scotia gambling houses, starting next spring.

The decision is an economic and social wild card for the province. During the past two years, two separate all-party government committees and the province’s lottery commission have all concluded that Nova Scotia is not ready for casinos. Moreover, a poll released last year by Halifax-based Omnifacts Research showed that more than 60 per cent of Nova Scotians oppose the concept. But for the cashstrapped provincial government, the potential tax revenue from casinos proved irresistible. According to Finance Minister Bernie Boudreau, the province—which will join Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba in allowing casinos— will collect a 20-per-cent tax on casino revenues worth an estimated $31 million annually. As well, the govern-

ment will receive 65 per cent—or an estimated $19 million—of afterexpenses profits from the Halifax casino.

Critics are worried the casinos will bring more than tax revenues. In addition to attracting an unsavory criminal element, they fear that casinos will foster gambling addictions and harm the province’s image as a tranquil tourist destination. Others warn that the expected financial windfall may not materialize. For example, while the province is touting the gambling houses as a tourist boon, the experience at casinos such as the one in Montreal, which opened in 1993, indicate that most of the betting is done by local residents rather than tourists.

For all of that, the Nova Scotia government, which has an accumulated debt of about $9 billion, clearly likes the odds. But what about the political costs? By ignoring the advice of government committees, opinion polls and a petition carrying 42,000 signatures, the government may have dealt itself a weak hand. “If this thing goes ahead, we have effectively lost democracy,” says Ian Coll, head of People Against Casinos, an umbrella organization that is planning a series of antigambling rallies in January. “It’s a hellish, dangerous situation.” Maybe for the government, too—although it will likely take until the next provincial election before the Liberals find out whether or not their gamble has paid off.

Halifax