clubs – protecting their pokies, not their patrons

It’s official. The clubs of Australia are a law unto themselves.

News has recently emerged of the Clubs Australia campaign being waged against the mandatory pre-commitment agreement struck between Andrew Wilkie and Julia Gillard. Reported here, the essence is that the clubs are targeting all 150 Federal MPs to paint a picture of how this agreement will cost jobs and hurt the community. More than this, they’re writing to each of their 10 million members to warn them about what they say will be the impact of pre-commitment technology, including job cuts and increased prices.

This isn’t just a campaign; it’s an exercise in fear-mongering. The clubs are using their position of authority to misinform their members, trusting that they’ll be believed because they’re “community-oriented” clubs. And their contact with our Federal MPs is little more than a thinly-veiled threat, telling them that they’ll cop a backlash if they support the reforms.

The reality is that the clubs’ interest in this has nothing to do with the welfare of their members. Far from it. Their primary concern is to protect their gambling industry and the revenue it generates. I’m not making this up; read through their latest annual report, or any of a number of press releases and you’ll find them referring to the need to “protect the industry” rather than protect their patrons. There’s even the suggestion that, being clubs, they don’t have the same issues with problem gamblers that hotels do, which is ludicrous and has absolutely no basis in fact.

Let me say this up front. I believe in the concept of the clubs of Australia. I support the notion of a network of non-profit organisations that raise money and provide benefits and support not only to their members but to the wider community. That is indeed a noble and worthwhile cause. What I find totally abhorrent is that this same “community-serving” association draws the lion’s share of it’s revenue from a form of gambling that is not only designed to take money out of the community, but also causes more problems and pain that any other form of gambling in this country.

Now, I don’t expect you to take my word for any of this. Unlike Anthony Ball, the Clubs Australia CEO, I believe in trying to substantiate what I say. So let’s take a look at this letter campaign, and then a closer look at Clubs Australia, and I believe the facts will speak for themselves.

In the article about the clubs’ campaign, Anthony Ball is quoted as saying this about mandatory pre-commitment:

“It will absolutely drive down gambling revenue (from poker machines), but it will drive down revenue from recreational or average punters. The problem gamblers will go and enjoy any other number of other gambling options.”

It’s clear that Ball’s first priority isn’t helping problem gamblers, who are members of the communities that his clubs serve. It’s protecting the revenue stream. And he assumes that problem gamblers who play the pokies will turn to any other form of gambling to satisfy their addiction, which only highlights how unqualified he is to comment on this issue. The pokies are uniquely addictive; it’s not just the gambling, it’s the lights, the sounds, the anonymity, the separation from reality that sets pokies apart. Being a pokies problem gambler does not automatically make you desperate to gamble on anything and everything. Having suffered through years of pokies addiction I can speak from experience on this issue; I wonder if Ball can do the same?

I do agree, however, that online pokies need to be curtailed as part of this push for mandatory pre-commitment. Online pokies are illegal in Australia, although playing them is not. We have the technology to block access to online pokies and no, I’m not talking about some sort of internet filter. I’m talking about blacklisting the companies that run these websites, so that Australian credit cards can’t be used to play them. Again, I have worked for years in IT and specifically with credit card systems; I know this can be done, and without too much trouble.

Getting back to the article: one line that jumped out at me was this:

“The clubs’ letter urges members to write to their federal MP and ask them to vote against the measures. It says the reforms treat all members as irresponsible problem gamblers.”

Let me make this perfectly clear: problem gambling is an addiction. It is not about being irresponsible; do you really think that problem gamblers freely choose to blow tens of thousands of dollars playing the pokies? That they destroy their families, their careers and ultimately their lives, just because they’re being irresponsible? Of course not! And Clubs Australia should know this, given the number of venues and poker machines they maintain. But no, it suits their purpose to portray the victims as the bad guys. I wonder just how many of their 10 million members have been touched by the pain of problem gambling… I’m willing to stick my neck out and say it’d be more than a few.

Let’s step away from the article for the moment. The key driver behind these events is the Productivity Commission report into gambling that was released by the government a day before Gillard took the reins from Kevin Rudd. This report was a long time in the making, and has been widely accepted as describing the definitive state of all gambling in this country.

In a media release issued by Clubs Australia on 31 August 2010, railing against the idea of $1 max bets for pokies, Anthony Ball was quoted at length. He described the PC report as “the most exhaustive report on problem gambling in Australian history.” He even recommended that Andrew Wilkie should read the report before getting involved in discussions about problem gambling. Sounds like he agrees that the report was on the money.

Why, then, does the 2010 Clubs Australia annual report (which was released after the Wilkie-Gillard agreement) quote Ball as saying:

“The final report, released in June 2010, as a result of a flawed methodology and incomplete analysis produced recommendations like a $1 maximum bet that on its own would cost New South Wales venues $300,000,000 to change over existing games as well as drive down revenue by $1.1 billion per year without any proven benefit to problem gambling. No amount of reasoning and good argument could budge the Commission from their position that the amount of poker machine gambling should be reduce via draconian measures that would have an uncertain effect on problem gamblers but would certainly deter recreational gamblers and hurt clubs and those that rely on them very deeply.”

Hmmm. Same person, very different message. How does “flawed methodology and incomplete analysis” make this the “most exhaustive report on problem gambling in Australian history”? If it’s so far off the mark, why does Ball tell Andrew Wilkie he should read it? It doesn’t make sense, but that’s the way Ball plays. He’ll say what he needs to in order to support his position, no matter how contradictory or inaccurate it may be. I mean, $300 million to implement a $1 cap in NSW alone? Not likely! And of course there is no research to back up his figures. There rarely is.

There are other even-more-recent examples of Ball’s fondness for inaccuracy. Another media release, this one issued on 2 September 2010, screams “WILKIE DEAL IS BAD FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS”. Again, Ball is quoted in the release, and finishes with this statement:

“Today’s decision is a black eye for not just registered clubs, but all Australians who will now be told by the Government how much of their money they can spend gambling.”

This is an absolute lie. The fundamental basis of pre-commitment technology is that gamblers set their own limits. Not the government, but the players themselves. Ball knows this, but it suits his purposes to play the “big brother” card and point at the government. Once again, Anthony Ball has lied to suit his needs.

There’s more, much more. Go back to the 2010 annual report for Clubs Australia, which contain pages of financial reports. Nowhere is it mentioned how much revenue was earned from poker machines. A strange omission, given that that’s where most of their revenue comes from!

Or Ball’s assertion that he had received commitments from Gillard and Tony Abbott, prior to the 2010 election, that neither party would implement gambling reform… and certainly not without consulting Clubs Australia. I’ve read the letters from the ALP and the Coalition in response (as posted on the Clubs Victoria website). Ball is once again talking rubbish. The ALP’s response goes into some detail about problem gambling and how the Federal government would work with the states and territories to develop a national response, and even mentions their support for pre-commitment technology. The Coalitions’s response is nothing more than a smear on the ALP, and doesn’t even mention problem gambling or gambling reforms. It’s a form letter. Certainly not the promise that Anthony Ball said it was!

Ultimately, I’m not surprised that Anthony Ball has stooped to constant lying in order to further the needs of his industry (as opposed to his members). I am, however, disappointed in him. As I’ve said here, mandatory pre-commitment technology can change gambling in this country for the better, and save pain and hardship for hundreds of thousands of Australians, many of whom are members at Ball’s clubs. Yet instead of embracing the challenge and working towards a viable solution, Ball has committed his organisation to a course that brings them into direct opposition with the stated aims of the Federal government. The resulting conflict will be messy and expensive, and it’s the members Ball pretends to support that will foot the bill.

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2 Responses

  1. Sue Pinkerton says:

    Hi Thomas, Have you met Roger Horbay yet? Roger is President of Gameplanit Interactive corp(see http://www.gameplanit.com/) and Chief Intelligence Officer of Blackedge Technologies (http://888nevada.com/Management.html ). Roger is a psychologist and former counselor of Problem gamblers. He is – as far as I know – one of the first people to start looking at the product and what makes gaming machines addictive. He began his exploration after noticing that many of his clients only developed a gambling problem only after they began using gambling machines. Despite the promotion of Blackedge as a industry beneficial company, Roger is definitely a Jedi Knight and staunch defender of people hooked on gambling machines. He designed the Gameplanit program that explains how slot machines work. I have met Roger, spoken with him for many years, heard him speak at conferences and love the man to bits!

    Within BlackEdge, they have been looking for someone from Australia who can represent their company. Given your IT background and past gambling experience, you might be just the person Roger et al has been looking for. Roger’s email address is, roger@blackedgetechnologies.com
    I will send Roger a copy of this email. Please get in touch with him…

    hugs included,

    Sue (Pinkerton)

  2. admin says:

    Sue, thanks for that! I’ve had a look at the Game Planit and Blackedge websites… very interesting indeed. I’ll certainly follow up and see where that leads.

    My position has always been pro-reform, rather than anti-gambling. I am constantly appalled at the state of the industry and how easily super-addictive technology can be introduced and maintained with little or no effective regulation or restraining factors… I’m looking forward to talking to Roger.

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