gambling reform: stalemate is not an option

Chess is a beautiful game. Strategic, challenging, easy to play yet difficult to master, chess is one of the oldest forms of recreational warfare, and as such provides the perfect analogy to the current push-and-shove battle that surrounds the topic of gambling reform in this country. From the moment Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie shook hands and moved their pawn two squares forward, it was game on.

The intervening months have seen a series of moves and counter-moves from both sides, made all the more fascinating by the fact that each side is in reality an alliance of disparate forces united under a common banner. On the one hand we have the Federal government, the loosely-defined anti-gambling lobby, community groups, academics, health care professionals and a largely concerned public; on the other we have the industry coalition of pubs, clubs and casinos, the Federal opposition, state and territorial governments, shock jocks and libertarians. Two sides, each shuffling their pieces around the board and trying to gain the upper hand while staving off the advances of the other.

We saw the establishment of a Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform, which was tasked with making recommendations for the government to implement; in response, we had Coalition members of the committee publicly decrying the reforms and resisting every step of the way. We had the ClubsAustralia and AHA “Un-Australian” campaign, a near-disastrous move that almost completely backfired; in response, we got Nick Xenophon’s Big Fat Lie website, my own rival Un-Australian website, and a wave of public hostility to the machinations of the gambling industry. For every newspaper story detailing the need for reforms, there were two that shouted that jobs would be lost and businesses shut down. Move, counter-move, retreat, regroup, attack… there have been lulls in the game, but it rolls on regardless.

The strategies employed by both sides would be fascinating to watch, were it not for the fact that the stakes are so high. For the major players there’s the right to form and hold government as opposed to the right to continue to make billions of dollars with little or no regulation, but there’s far more to it than that. Both of these pale into insignificance when focus shifts away from the political manouevring and rests on those at the heart of this matter: the tens, even hundreds of thousands of Australians who have poker machine-related gambling problems, and the million Australians who are directly affected as a result. They are the reasons these reforms are so important; so too is our country’s reputation as a nation of gamblers, a nation that spends and loses far, far more per person on gambling every year than any other country on the planet. That’s not an enviable reputation to have, but it’s the truth.

There is one other aspect to this game of chess that makes the gameplay so much more intriguing, and that is that there are some who have not yet decided which side they favour. Key players whose support will be pivotal to the outcome, and who are still hedging their bets. They are Katter, Windsor, Oakeshott and Crook, the Independents whose votes will be crucial to the success or failure of any proposed legislation, and they are being wooed and pressured relentlessly by both sides. Almost as one they have expressed their concern about problem gambling, yet also about the impact any reforms could have on the wider community. They’ve been inundated with tales of woe from the Clubs industry, and the impact that these reforms will supposedly have on their constituents… yet the reforms have been tailor-made to address many of their concerns, including concessions for the small clubs that their electorates contain. Still no definite response. It’s been a studious exercise in fence-sitting, but sooner or later they are going to have to state their intentions.

With that in mind, the latest moves in this game of chess have been made. They weren’t obvious, and seemingly have little to do with poker machines, but they may prove to be the moves that swing the game in favour of gambling reform. Firstly, in the past week the Federal government moved to ban the promotion of live odds during the broadcast of sporting events. This has been seen by many as long overdue, and the first step towards tackling the growing sports betting culture that is being pushed onto our society. And secondly, as the Australian Federal Police lend their assistance to the FBI in their investigation of online poker fraud that may be worth billions of dollars, the Federal government has announced a review of the Interactive Gambling Act. Not only that, but Senator Nick Xenophon announced that the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform would be expanded to include online casino sites.

What do these two actions have to do with poker machines? It’s simple. One of the criticisms being levelled at the proposed poker machine reforms by the Independents is that they do not tackle other forms of gambling, such as online or sports gambling. The Clubs industry has also been particularly vocal in its criticism, saying that the reforms will send poker machine addicts online to gamble (a view which is not supported by research, by the way). By taking serious steps to tackle both sports betting and online gambling, the Federal government has made its move and is saying to the Independents, here you go. You want it? We’re doing it. Now get on board.

It remains to be seen whether or not this latest move will prove to be the winning one. Each side still has many pieces on the board, and a range of pressures and tactics to draw upon. Either way, it was a bold and almost brilliant move, showing a commitment to gambling reform that is not tied to the need to maintain power in Canberra, but at the same time enhancing their prospects of long-term success. What does seem to be certain is that whatever happens next, this game of chess still has a long way to go.


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