Could the horseracing industry be the turning point of Ontario’s next election? The rural communities in the province have reacted swiftly and strongly against former Premier Dalton McGuinty’s cancellation of the slots at racetrack program in order to focus on the OLG casino proposals. The Liberal government remains in a minority position, and needs support from rural Ontario to regain a majority – but the damage may already be done.
The OLG announced its casino expansion plan last year, and also hinted at plans to implement provincially regulated online casinos in the future. The Liberal government supported the OLG’s plans by announcing the cancellation of the slots at racetrack revenue sharing program as part of the strategy to move into major urban centres. The government, having already been reduced to a minority position, immediately met with backlash from thousands of rural Ontarians whose lives are dependent on business at the racetracks.
Due to numerous scandals – which pundits say includes the OLG modernization strategy – Dalton McGuinty stepped down as Premier of Ontario, and Kathleen Wynne was appointed earlier this month as his successor. Wynne has appointed herself as Ontario’s agriculture minister in part to show her commitment to rural Ontarians. However, the damage may already be too great to repair.
Racetrack communities overwhelmingly voted Tory in the last election, which was seen as a significant consequence of the Liberals losing their majority in government. Political analysts say Wynne has a lot of work to do in winning back some of that lost support, which could be why she has taken on the agriculture file. This position is meant to serve the interests of rural Ontario, and the Premier’s taking up the mantle could be considered a political move rather than a commitment to help rural communities.
Wynne has said on the record that one of the first tasks of the renewed Ontario legislature will be to extend the slots at racetrack program beyond the March 31 deadline imposed by her predecessor. Although Wynne says she will not stop the OLG modernization expansion, she says racetracks deserve more time to implement a new revenue strategy. As a result, the program will be given an extension – but it will eventually come to an end.
The Premier is counting on this move to win back some support from the rural community. Without regaining some lost ground, the Liberals will remain in minority government or lose power entirely.