Federal Justice Minister Rob Nicholson tried – and apparently failed – to convince Conservative senators to support new sports-gambling legislation during a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday.
The hour-long appearance by the Minister at the weekly Conservative Senate caucus was a late attempt by the government to win back support for a rule change that had faced little resistance until recently.
Provinces had asked for the right to regulate single-game bets, arguing they are losing revenue to off-shore gambling sites and organized crime.
But the Conservative majority in the Senate is giving notice that Prime Minister Stephen Harper can't automatically count on their support.
"My sense of it is it's going to go down," Conservative Senator Norman Doyle told The Globe following the caucus meeting.
Mr. Nicholson has previously made clear that the government supports Bill C-290, which was passed unanimously this year by all parties in the House of Commons. The private member's bill was first proposed by NDP MP Joe Comartin, and both Mr. Comartin and Mr. Nicholson represent Ontario ridings with casinos that would benefit from the new rules.
The bill is opposed by several professional sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League and the National Hockey League, who argue single games are more vulnerable to abuse. Current laws allow betting on pro sports, but not on a single game. Concerns have also been expressed about the potential for more problem gambling and societal problems if single-game bets are allowed.
The Conservatives have a clear majority in the 105-seat Senate (four of those seats are currently vacant) and Mr. Harper himself has appointed 48 of the 60 Conservative senators.
There are several senators with current or past connections to professional sports.
Conservative Senator Jacques Demers, who attended Tuesday's meeting, is a former NHL head coach with the Montreal Canadians and the Quebec Nordiques.
Mr. Demers acknowledged Tuesday he has concerns with allowing single-game betting but hasn't made a final decision on how he will vote. He said he was not feeling pressured by the government to support the bill.
"Yes at times you have to vote for the party, but yes at times you have to vote for what is the right thing and that's what I want to do in this case," he said.
Conservative Senator Larry Smith – a former commissioner of the Canadian Football League and former CFL player – acknowledged the bill is controversial, but declined to say how he would vote.
"Right now there's a major debate," he said. "There's obviously going to be two trains of thought."
Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan said his government has been urging Ottawa for years to approve the change because Ontario casinos are losing business to U.S. and offshore casinos.
Mr. Duncan said Ottawa should have made this a clear government initiative.
"Our hope is if this private member's initiative fails in the Senate, that the government would at a minimum look at including an initiative within a budget bill," he said. "It is important to the provinces."
The Finance Minister said Ontario is currently losing half a billion dollars a year in gaming revenue to offshore gambling sites.
Paul Burns, the vice-president of the Canadian Gaming Association, said his organization is in regular contact with Senators and remains hopeful the bill will pass.
"Obviously there's senators like Norm Doyle who are more interested in appeasing the foreign sports leagues than working with provinces," he said. "The alternative to not passing this bill is to leave sports wagering in the hands of organized crime and offshore, online bookmakers. It's as simple as that."