Pokies reform: the price of a minority government?

Australians put nearly $12 billion a year into poker machines. Three quarters of people who have a serious problem with gambling are pokie players. One in six people who play the pokies regularly have a problem. These are the facts. Independent politicians have been campaigning for reforms and in a deal with the Federal Government they look set to be in action by 2014. But are these reforms the right solution to solving this problem?

Andrew Wilkie, Independent MP for Denison (Tasmania), is the main mover and shaker pushing for the reforms while Tony Abbott, along with buddy James Packer are forming the face of the opposition.

Mr Wilkie gained the support of the minority Gillard Government at the time of the 2010 election in return for his siding with the Labor Party and allowing them to form government. He has since threatened to withdraw support from the government if Gillard does not follow through on her promise of passing the proposed reforms.

But what are the reforms trying to achieve?

Mr Wilkie, along with the support of controversial Senator Nick Xenaphon (best known as the senator who used parliamentary privilege to name a priest accused of sexual abuse) has proposed two key reforms to battle gambling addictions:

  • Pre-commitment technology: meaning, poker machine users will be required to set the amount of money they’re willing to lose. Wilkie wants to see this technology fitted to high-intensity poker machines.
  • $1 maximum bet per spin: meaning poker machine users can only bet up to $1 on each spin. Wilkie wants to see this utilised on low-intensity machines outside of mandatory pre-commitment machines.

According to Mr Wilkie, “research shows that a mandatory pre-commitment system, for example smart cards, is an effective way to reduce problem gambling on poker machines.”

It’s important to note that these reforms are not the brainchild of Mr Wilkie. Rather, the proposed reforms come directly from the Productivity Commission Report into Gambling of June 2010. A report that was released on the same day Kevin Rudd was deposed as Prime Minister.

It was Mr Xenaphon who directed Mr Wilkie towards the report.

“The strategy was that whatever Andrew asked for had to be on the basis of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations, because here was an independent report, well considered, thoroughly researched, robustly reviewed, that came up with a number of key recommendations and two of them were the $1 bets and also the whole issue of mandatory pre-commitment,” Mr Xenaphon told Four Corners in July.

The Prime Minister signed a deal with Mr Wilkie on September 2nd.

She agreed to implement pre-commitment technology on every poker machine in Australia by 2014. The states and territories had until May this year to sign up. But the PM also committed to new laws to force the change.

It doesn’t seem like a negative thing, does it? Yet, Mr Abbott and Mr Packer are claiming it will ruin tourism and will be bad for the industry. Yes, it will be bad for the businesses making the money, sounds a bit heartless right?

Mr Packer, owner of Crown Casino, weighed into this controversial debate at Crown’s annual general meeting in October. He told shareholders mandatory pre-commitment would cost jobs and hurt recreational gamblers.

Crown Casino has a strong record on problem gambling, Mr Packer said. This includes a legally binding voluntary self-exclusion scheme used by more than 3000 people.

“I believe Crown has led the way in tackling problem gambling and we’re prepared to do more,” Mr Packer said at the meeting.

“We don’t have an issue with the Federal Government taking action against problem gambling, but it must be the right solution.”

But is opposing one solution helpful for the pursuit of the right solution?

Mr Packer continued by trotting out the favourite line of people opposing anything – there’s no evidence.  Yes, Mr Packer claims introducing mandatory pre-commitment or introducing a $1 maximum bet would not be effective in tackling problem gambling.

Mr Packer then pulled out the big guns – jobs and taxes.

“But it will hurt recreational players and that will cost jobs and investment across the industry and cost the State Government tax revenue used for essential community services,” he said.

Crown’s CEO, Rowen Craigie pointed out a key flaw of the reform, saying it was unclear how the legislation would help problem gamblers, since they could set their limit as high as they wanted. But is this also not a flaw of Crown’s voluntary self-exlcusion scheme?

Mr Craigie believes there needs to be a more “personalized approach” involving direct assistance to players who maybe problem gamblers. But could the proposed reforms be seen as a step in this direction?

Mr Abbott has not pledged “in blood” to repeal the pokies reform but has predicted the opposition will resolve to oppose it and rescind it in government. No promises though.

According to the Opposition Leader, the reforms do not have the support of the government, but rather the only reason these reforms are being considered was to save Julia Gillard’s job.

“It’s obvious that Labor members of parliament, including Labor cabinet ministers, hate it,” Abbott told the press in Perth in late October.

“So people need to understand that the only reason the country is now considering the mandatory pre-commitment is not because it’s in the national interests but because it was necessary for the political survival of the Prime Minister. This is a Prime Minister who has sold her soul to save her job.”

Mr Abbott does believe in helping problem gamblers, saying “we do need to the right thing by problem gamblers.” This includes doing more to provide counselling and ensuring problem gambling doesn’t spring up in new areas.

“But there’s no point in taking action that does more harm than good and that’s my problem with mandatory pre-commitment. It won’t be effective against problem gamblers but it will do enormous damage to these community clubs.”

What do you think? Will these reforms be positive for problem gamblers or will they only spell doom and gloom for the industry? Has Julia Gillard sold her soul for the top gig? You tell us, comment below or email us on cheaperthanrubies@gmail.com

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1 Comment

Filed under Politics in a Pinch

One response to “Pokies reform: the price of a minority government?

  1. Geoff

    Was Abbott right about the Pokie deal… well it seems history has proven him right.
    What was the real price for this minority government… ?
    The TRUTH.

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