The Australian media has been buzzing over the past 24 hours with the news that the Greens had weighed in on the issue of poker machine reforms. The official Greens policy, as put forward by Victorian Senator Richard Di Natale, calls for every poker machine in the country to have a maximum bet of $1, a $500 maximum prize and a “load-up” restriction of $20. No pre-commitment to be seen.
Senator Di Natale’s policy announcement received widespread coverage, from The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald to the Herald Sun and the ABC, and plenty more besides. It’s important to realise, though, that this policy is nothing new.
The current proposed reforms, being championed by Labor, Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon, are a two-tier system. Mandatory pre-commitment would apply to high-cost poker machines, which are what we have now. And to avoid pre-commitment, venues would have the option of downgrading some or all of their poker machines to low-cost poker machines… with $1 maximum bets, $500 maximum prizes, and a $20 load-up limit.
I have long held the belief, and have said as much many times, that should these reforms become law, most venues would opt for low-cost poker machines. Converting pokies to this model is cheaper than installing pre-commitment, no card is required and the vast majority of pokie players (88%) would be completely unaffected. If clubs and pubs are worried about the fictional “licence to punt” driving their patrons away, then low-cost pokies are the obvious answer.
But as for whether to do away with pre-commitment altogether, and convert ALL poker machines to low-cost machines?
Well, why not?
When the Productivity Commission released their gambling report in June 2010, a $1 cap on poker machine betting limits was one of the key recommendations. This report was the result of years of intensive and widespread research, and is considered a landmark in gambling research in this country. I wrote about the $1 gambling cap at the time, barely a month after I started this blog.
Before the federal election of 2010, Andrew WIlkie campaigned on a platform that included the implementation of $1 pokies across Australia. This is the position he took into his discussions with Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, when the election became a sudden-death play-off of compromise and negotiation. My write-up about this, from August 2010, is here.
Clubs Australia were quick to rubbish Wilkie’s stance on this. Executive Director Anthony Ball was light on for facts but was more than willing to sink the slipper in, claiming that Wilkie “clearly hasn’t bothered to read the most exhaustive report on problem gambling in Australian history”. Mind you, not only were Wilkie’s demands consistent with the report’s recommendations, but Ball himself has constantly rubbished the report, rejecting much of what it contains and claiming it was inherently flawed. This selective use of evidence is known as cherry-picking, and Ball and his crew are brilliant at it. My thoughts on this situation, written at the time, are here.
When Wilkie met with Julia Gillard, the option of mandatory pre-commitment was put on the table as an alternative to $1 pokies. History will tell that the Joint Select Committee that was formed after the Gillard-Wilkie agreement (and that I made my own submission to) went on to recommend both strategies as an integrated package of reforms.
The anti-reform campaign, led from the front by Clubs Australia (aka Clubs NSW), focused on mandatory pre-commitment and tried to pretend that $1 pokies didn’t exist. That they were fiction. That they were no more than a distraction. This misdirection is particularly obvious, when you consider that Victoria recently legislated a drop in the maximum bet for poker machines from $10 to $5… and not only was the legislation passed without a blip, but it was easily and economically enforced. Dropping bet limits in poker machines is not new, it’s not hard, and it’s certainly not expensive.
Changing Australia’s poker machine landscape in this fashion, with a $1 gambling cap across the board, would have no impact on the 88% of all pokie players who already play $1 or less every spin. So casual players will not be affected. They won’t stay away in droves, or migrate to the internet, or find ways around the scheme… or any of the other pokiegeddon scenarios that the industry are moaning about.
And the temptation to bet up big which often grips pokie addicts, especially when chasing losses or after a big win, would be removed. The volatility of the machines would be significantly reduced.
That’s quite a list of advantages. But there’s more…
The introduction of a $1 pokie cap would have some impact on existing poker machine addicts. Not as much as mandatory pre-commitment, but some. However, the big shift would be in the development of problematic gambling behaviours in the future. The pokie players of the future will start playing in an environment that is radically different to what we have now… lower stakes, lower prizes. It is, if you’ll pardon the expression, a paradigm shift. Altering the ability of poker machines to take in so much money so quickly, as well as removing the promise of quick riches (for $500 is hardly riches), will mean that pokie players in years to come will gamble differently to the pokie players of today. The social benefit of these changes will be far-reaching.
The gambling industry is well aware that much of their revenue comes from addicts; more, in reality, than the widely-accepted figure of 40%. One of the problems with assessing the harm of poker machine addiction is that pokie addicts generally don’t talk about it… so it can be hard to get an accurate idea of just how much is being spent. If regular pokie players can underestimate their spending by a factor of roughly 30 (as found in prevalence surveys referenced in the Productivity Commission report), imagine how much money poker machine addicts are actually spending. It’s frightening. The industry knows this, and they’re running scared. It’s why they try to say that revenue will be smashed by the reforms, not because problem gamblers will stay away, but because recreational gamblers will stay away instead. It’s a particularly stupid and transparent argument.
And a $20 load-up limit (restricting machines from accepting more than $20 at a time from a player) would not only drastically reduce the incidence of people pouring hundreds of dollars into a machine before playing (something poker machine addicts can be prone to). It will also decimate the money laundering industry that is flourishing in NSW. Criminals are regularly pouring large sums of money into pokies, then hitting collect. The resulting cheque is clean money. With a $20 load-up limit, this practice would cease overnight.
So yes, I’m in favour of a $1 poker machine cap across the board. I do believe in mandatory pre-commitment and I know it could work… but it is being so widely opposed by the industry and so blatantly vilified that settling for low-cost pokies could be a viable and publicly-acceptable alternative.
And I’m not the only one who thinks this.
Rev. Tim Costello, chair of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce: “I would have preferred just… low-loss machines where you just buy your distraction time. But of course Anthony and the clubs would be screaming at that. So this was actually a trade off that Andrew Wilkie and the Gillard government did to really help clubs, to say ok, well you’ve got your low-loss machines but you make your big winnings from these high-loss (machines), these are the ones that do the social damage.”
Dr Charles Livingstone, gambling researcher with Monash University: “The idea of moving to a $1 maximum bet is a very good option for minimising the harm of pokie-related problem gambling, and is supported by research funded by the gambling industry in 2001.”
But probably the biggest indicator that a national $1 cap on poker machines could work is that despite being easy and inexpensive to implement, with no impact on 88% of poker machine players and no need for any kind of card or pre-commitment, the industry (and the clubs industry in particular) continue to say it will cost billions of dollars, won’t work, and will destroy the industry and communities. They say this without any proof, and they say it every chance they get.
And let’s not forget that these reforms, whether they include $1 pokies, pre-commitment or a blend of the two, are not exclusive. They will not replace counselling, or self-exclusion, or education, or any of the other strategies that the industry hold up as being “better.” This is NOT an “either/or” situation.
If $1 pokies become law, there is NOTHING stopping the industry or our state governments from offering voluntary pre-commitment, for example. Nothing at all. And there is nothing stopping counselling services from continuing on, or self-exclusion programs. These things won’t stop once the reforms come into effect.
So while the Greens may be championing $1 poker machines, don’t forget that the concept has been around for some time… and without it, Wilkie wouldn’t have struck a deal with Gillard in the first place.