Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's year-long casino debate finally comes to an end, but did we learn anything?

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Canada Published on Tue May 21 2013

After all that, we're right back where we started.

Under the shadow of those still-unanswered crack cocaine allegations levelled against Mayor Rob Ford, Toronto City Council has voted to totally reject any notion of a Toronto casino. The vote comes after more than a year of political debate, unprecedented levels of City hall lobbying, dozens of thick staff reports, a long public consultation process and relentless championing from Ford, who once introduced the topic of casinos on his radio show by making “cha-ching” sound effects as if he were a slot machine.

It was all for nothing. Council nixed both the proposed downtown casino resort and any expansion of gambling at Woodbine racetrack. We're keeping the status quo.

Ford tried to jump off the casino bandwagon last week, which it became clear that Premier Kathleen Wynne had reservations about the casino process, but it was hard to put much stock in his supposed change of heart. Today, Ford defended himself by pointing out he hadn't campaigned on the issue of a casino. Which is factually true, but still misleading. With Ford, there's a perpetual political campaign that extends far beyond official election periods. So while his official 2010 campaign wasn't about casinos, his unofficial 2012 campaign was about little else.

In the end, Ford wasn't even able to get the face-saving result on the council floor he was looking for. His motions were all roundly defeated, with Ford and his brother, Coun. Doug Ford, even losing on their bid to expand gambling operations at Woodbine. The Woodbine vote came as a surprise, both because that part of Etobicoke is the Fords' home turf, and because the vote — at 24-20 — was close enough that it was probably winnable with a little bit of strategy.

But maybe Ford was too busy dealing with other things.

For casino opponents like the specularly well-organized and effective No Casino Toronto group, today is a good day. It's also a pretty good day for those of us who were just tired of the casino debate. But I do worry about one part of this outcome: through this long, tortuous process, did Toronto actually learn anything?

This isn't an ego thing — I was far from the only one decrying the move toward casinos. But if we knew these things back then, why did it take a full year to get to the point where council rejected a casino? And, more importantly, how much money was wasted — at City Hall, at OLG, and at the provincial level — on what ultimately proved to be a foregone conclusion?

We need to know the answer to that question. It's also worth figuring out if there was a better way to handle this — could councillors have been given the opportunity to vote on whether to proceed with the reports and consultations before staff went out and started working the issue?

It's important to know this stuff for next time. And don't kid yourself: there will be a next time. Just as this latest Toronto casino debate was only about 15 years removed from the last one in 1997, another bid for a Toronto casino is likely. There will always be times when reflexively anti-tax politicians ride populist waves to power and look to the glitzy lights of a casino as their budget saviour.

But, hey, next time, let's see if we can be any quicker about saying “no.”

This post was originally published at on 2013-05-21T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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