Clubs Australia, the governing body behind this country’s registered clubs movement and indirectly responsible for over 100,000 poker machines, has been caught out lying about poker machine reform… again.
You’d think they’d have learned by now.
The issue is, once again, mandatory pre-commitment (MPC) for poker machines. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past five years, you’d remember that MPC was the reform measure for poker machines agreed to by Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie, and underpinned the minority Labor government until the balance of power shifted and the deal was dropped.
The clubs industry, championed by Clubs NSW and Clubs Australia (who are both run by the same people), launched multiple campaigns against MPC. It was Un-Australian! It Wouldn’t Work but Would Hurt! They trotted out sympathetic figures like priests and football players and threatened carnage in marginal seats up and down the east coast of Australia.
Along the way, they also muddied the waters by howling about fingerprinting, and licences to gamble, and invasions of privacy, and databases of gamblers… you name it, they claimed it.
And it worked. MPC, already poorly understood by the public, proved toxic within the Labor party and was dropped. The simpler alternative, $1 maximum bets (ironically Wilkie’s preferred reform measure), never gained the same support or momentum that MPC did and remains unlikely to be implemented any time soon, although it does have some political support.
The clubs industry largely ignored $1 bets. They said it was a distraction, that $1 machines didn’t exist, and continued to focus their efforts on MPC. It was a sound tactic, as MPC was already beaten and they could keep kicking it as long and as often as they liked.
But kick too long, and eventually you miss. Which is what Clubs Australia have done, and they’ve ended up with their foot wedged firmly in their collective mouth.
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The Canadian province of Nova Scotia also has electronic gaming machines. They’re known as “video lottery terminals”, or VLTs, and they’re quite similar to our poker machines. They don’t have as many, only a couple of thousand or so, but that’s not the point.
What’s important is that in recent years, they too have looked into mandatory pre-commitment as a means of tackling gambling harm. After several years of trials and evaluation, a card-based pre-commitment solution called My-Play was introduced in 2011, and became mandatory on all VLTs by April 2012. The card allowed gamblers to access a suite of harm minimisation measures, such as tracking their spending, setting limits and so on.
The Nova Scotia solution was one of a handful of programs around the world that was examined and analysed by supporters and enemies of Australian MPC alike. Both sides were looking for evidence to support their claims, and Nova Scotia was one of the very few places to actually implement some form of gambling pre-commitment measures. As such, it drew a great deal of attention here in Australia.
Was this mandatory pre-commitment? The answer is no. The Nova Scotian government, citing research that showed that most gamblers didn’t like registering for a card, or being forced to use the tools it provided, implemented a voluntary solution instead. While it was true that gamblers needed a card to play a VLT, venues were provided with temporary anonymous cards that they handed out to whoever wanted them. No registration, no personal details… use it and throw it away.
What’s more, the harm minimisation measures were also optional. Gamblers didn’t have to track their expenditure, or limit their time, or use any of the available tools unless they wanted to.
Ultimately, this was a voluntary pre-commitment scheme, quite different to what was being proposed in Australia. This wasn’t lost on supporters of MPC, who focused on the research and trials that were undertaken before My-Play was finally introduced. Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon, in a letter dated 29 September 2010, called the Nova Scotia solution “optional pre-commitment” so it’s quite clear they were aware of the nature of the scheme.
But neither was it lost on Clubs Australia. They made the point, long and loud and often, that Nova Scotia had implemented voluntary pre-commitment, not mandatory. They said this was the best and most sensible way to go. They claimed it was proof that MPC was a flawed and unworkable solution. And they wrongly criticised supporters of MPC (including Wilkie, Xenophon and World Vision boss Tim Costello) for saying that Nova Scotia’s scheme was mandatory, when in fact the opposite was true.
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The following are excerpts from Clubs Australia’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform’s inquiry into pre-commitment in early 2011:
“In fact, there have been no trials of national mandatory pre-commitment in any jurisdiction in the world. Trials in Nova Scotia required the player to use a pre-commitment card, but it was not mandatory to use its features, i.e. committing to time or spending limits was voluntary. Norway is the only country that has introduced mandatory pre-commitment.”
“Nova Scotia’s extensive trials had a requirement for participants to have a card, but it was voluntary to use the pre-commitment features on the cards, such as spending or time limits, or enforced breaks in play. Nova Scotia’s trials were explicitly not intended to redress problem gambling.”
“Following analysis over the trials, Nova Scotia has chosen to implement voluntary pre-commitment.”
When the Joint Select Committee released their first report in mid-2011, it included this direct quote from Clubs Australia President Peter Newell:
“Nova Scotia, Canada, trialled pre-commitment cards. They determined that the solution was of no benefit to problem gamblers and so chose to introduce voluntary pre-commitment instead.”
So it’s pretty clear that Clubs Australia knew that Nova Scotia had implemented voluntary pre-commitment. They said as much, before a parliamentary joint select committee… they must have been pretty certain.
Fast forward three years to August 2014. The Nova Scotian government announces that they are shutting down the My-Play pre-commitment scheme, effective almost immediately. They say that the scheme hasn’t worked; that revenue from problem gamblers has increased, that no one is using the cards the way they were supposed to, and that only casual gamblers were being discouraged from gambling.
Within hours, Clubs Australia had issued a media release, frothing and yelling and shouting:
“Mandatory pre-commitment has been dumped by one of the few jurisdictions in the world to adopt it, after the Government found that it wasn’t helping problem gamblers.”
Hang on a minute. This is the same Nova Scotia, yes? The Canadian province that Clubs Australia held up as a shining example of voluntary pre-commitment?
It seems that facts are optional for our clubs industry when it comes to poker machines.
Let’s read on:
However, the Nova Scotian Government announced yesterday that their mandatory pre-commitment system, known as My-Play, would be dropped completely from 8 September.
Clubs Australia Executive Director Anthony Ball said the decision by the Nova Scotian Government confirmed what sensible people already knew – that mandatory pre-commitment does not work.
“The Nova Scotian Government has admitted that mandatory pre-commitment was an expensive white elephant,” he said.
“When Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon tried to push mandatory pre-commitment on Australians, the club industry said it wouldn’t work and it would hurt. The decision by Nova Scotia shows that we were correct.”
Wow. There can be no doubt that Clubs Australia know the facts about Nova Scotia’s pre-commitment scheme. They testified as much before the Joint Select Committee. So that can only mean one thing.
A copy of the full Clubs Australia media release can be found here. I thought it wise to save a copy before it went missing from their website.
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Finally, let me conclude by pointing out some facts that Clubs Australia aren’t talking about.
They’re not talking about the fact that Nova Scotia implemented a number of other harm minimisation on their gaming machines which are still in operation. These include:
• A pop-up “duration of play” reminder every 30 minutes
• Mandatory cash-out after 150 minutes of play
• Maximum bet of $2.50 per spin
• Maximum cash load-up limit of $60
They’re not talking about the fact that none of these measures are available on Australian poker machines, or that the clubs industry has actively opposed all of them.
And they’re not talking about the fact that, even while voluntary pre-commitment has been proven to be spectacularly unsuccessful in Nova Scotia, the Australian clubs industry is strongly committed to voluntary pre-commitment in this country.
That’s right. Clubs Australia supports voluntary pre-commitment. It was explicitly written into the recent signed Memorandum of Understanding between Clubs NSW and the NSW government. It’s the pre-commitment measure of choice for both the gambling industry and our state governments. And it’s been proven not to work.
Maybe they should have thought about that before mouthing off at Nova Scotia.
But then, thinking was never Clubs Australia’s strong point.