my response to the coalition’s pretend gambling policy

Today, more than twelve months after gambling reform became a national political issue and decided the nature of our country’s government, the Federal Coalition finally made a definitive statement with regards to its own gambling policy.

Sort of.

Well actually, no it didn’t. The reality is somewhat underwhelming. Rather than release a formal gambling policy of any kind, the Coalition produced a policy discussion paper on gambling reform. It contains plenty of suggestions, but no commitment to any strategy of any kind… other than the establishment of a Working Group to look into the matter further. This Working Group will report back to the Leader of the Opposition (currently Tony Abbott) by the end of February 2012… just a few months before the impending poker machine reform legislation is due to go before parliament.

And as far as commitments go… that’s it.

Wow.

If you’re wondering what else the paper contains (it is a massive thirteen pages long after all, including front cover and a mostly-blank last page), then read on.

The Coalition’s Policy Discussion Paper On Gambling Reform

The Paper that was released today is actually two documents. Part One, covering four and a half pages, is an introduction to Part Two, which is the six-page-long paper itself. I’ll look at Part One first.

PART ONE

Here the Coalition explains their position on gambling and problem gambling. It’s where they explain the formation of the Working Group. But mostly, it’s where they attack the government’s proposed reforms… almost half of Part One is devoted to this purpose.

1. Introduction

The Coalition’s agenda with regards to any future gambling policy is made very clear. We are told that most Australians gamble responsibly, that the gambling industry employs over 150,000 people across the country, and all about the hospitality, tourism and accommodation sectors. We are told how “less than one per cent of the Australian population are problem gamblers”, and that problem gambling rates appear to be falling.

Oh, and there are a few lines that refer to the “small number of people”, the “small percentage of the population” that is suffering from gambling addiction.

The Coalition’s position is made perfectly clear: Australia has a tiny gambling problem, and a massive industry that depends on gambling for its survival. I think you can see where this is heading.

The last two paragraphs are telling. They speak of the need to cover “all forms” of gambling, a direct reference to the Federal Government’s poker machine reform proposals. They speak of the “obvious outcome” of problem gamblers (I assume they mean poker machine addicts) turning to other forms of gambling to get their fix… despite a mountain of research and personal testimony (mine included) that suggests otherwise.

This is a forewarning of the uninformed assumptions to come.

2. The Gillard Government’s Proposal

The next two pages are devoted to explaining and destroying the proposed poker machine reforms. In reality, it is nothing more than a regurgitation of the arguments spruiked time and time again by Clubs NSW/Clubs Australia boss Anthony Ball… and in fact, this entire section could conceivably have been lifted, word for word, from the Clubs NSW website.

Mandatory pre-commitment is given a going over, but every argument used to oppose it is ignorant or flawed. We are told:

* all gamblers will be required to join a mandatory scheme before they can play poker machines.

This is untrue. It is now common knowledge that $1 poker machines with no pre-commitment are a key aspect of the proposed reforms.

* there is nothing to stop a problem gambler setting a high gambling limit.

That’s exactly the point. The setting of a limit is completely up to the individual.

* there is nothing to stop a problem gambler from swap(ping) poker machines for another form of gambling, such as wagering, online gambling or non-poker casino games.

Of course there isn’t. But there’s nothing from stopping them now, yet we’re not seeing a massive migration to other forms of gambling. Additionally, as I said earlier, research and the testimony of gambling counsellors and former poker machine addicts indicates that this will not happen.

The Coalition fails to recognise that poker machine addiction is different to regular problem gambling… that the majority of problem gamblers in Australia are actually poker machine addicts who have no interest in other forms of gambling.

* it is focussed only on poker machines and doesn’t cover other forms of gambling.

I still don’t understand why some people think this is an issue. Poker machine account for two thirds of all money gambled in this country. They account for 85% of gambling addicts. And close to half of Australia’s regular poker machine players have moderate to serious problems with their gambling.

It’s not as if other forms of gambling are being neglected by the government; the Interactive Gambling Act (covering online gambling) is already under review, and sports betting & advertising are also being re-assessed.

* there are also legitimate concerns regarding the issue of privacy.

This has to do with the management of a mandatory pre-commitment scheme. Again, the proposed reforms already cover this, stating that only minimal identification would be required to gain a pre-commitment card. It has also been confirmed that players’ gambling behaviour and spending history would NOT be tracked.

* the impact on tourists and irregular or recreational gamblers have not been sufficiently understood.

Tourists? The proposed reforms explicitly state that international tourists would be exempt from pre-commitment in casinos.

At this point, the document truly enters Clubs territory. We are told how clubs will be impacted, how community support will decline, how the “social fabric” will be put at risk by mandatory pre-commitment.

We get a dose of Wilkie, mixed in with a liberal dash of the carbon tax and a slur on the government’s record for implementing policy.

We get the Norway experience, trotted out again even though their findings disprove everything the industry is trying to say.

We are told that mandatory pre-commitment treats all gamblers as problem gamblers. We are warned against the “nanny state”.

This isn’t a discussion paper; it’s a Clubs Australia mission statement.

3. Productivity Commission’s Report into Australia’s Gambling Industry

This section is pretty brief, and really does nothing other than claim that the Coalition were responsible for making the then-Rudd-government commission the Productivity Commission’s report.

Yes, I know.

4. The Coalition’s Response to Problem Gambling

Finally we approach the real subject. In order to develop policy that tackles “problem gambling across all types of gambling”, the Coalition are setting up a Working Group. This Working Group won’t actually create the policy; they’ll just “progress broader consultation” on a policy.

The Working Group will be chaired by Kevin Andrews, and will include Malcolm Turnbull, Marise Payne, Bob Baldwin, Steven Ciobo, Chris Back, Josh Frydenberg and Alan Tudge. Their brief will be to consult extensively with stakeholders, including industry, the community and interested parties, with the stated aim of reporting back to the Leader of the Opposition by the end of February 2012.

There is no word as to when the policy itself will actually be formulated… but it is telling, in my opinion, that Ciobo, Back and Frydenberg were all on the Joint Select Committee that formulated the Gillard Government’s poker machine reform proposal, and opposed it every step of the way.

PART TWO

DISCUSSION PAPER: A NATIONAL RESPONSE TO PROBLEM GAMBLING

This is the actual discussion paper, which in the absence of a policy will have to do for now. It is the Coalition’s “opening contribution” to the policy development process, and is structured in an interesting fashion.

There are seven topics presented in this discussion paper, and while the overall concept is that the nature of the Coalition’s gambling policy will be discussed for many months, there are a number of issues presented at the end of each topic that give a fair indication of the direction that policy will follow.

1. Commonwealth Policy

Straight up, the Coalition questions the role of the Commonwealth Government in tackling problem gambling. The role of states and territories in overseeing gambling legislation is talked up, as is the role the Coalition has played in a number of gambling-related areas over the past decade.

Ultimately, the Coalition will clarify the “appropriate” role of the Commonwealth Government in tackling problem gambling. I get the impression that they feel this is better left to the states and territories.

2. A National Voluntary Pre-Commitment Programme

While stridently opposing mandatory pre-commitment, the Coalition throws its weight behind voluntary pre-commitment. Their position is that “could be part of an effective response to problem gambling” if it is supported by other measures, including counselling and self-exclusion.

I still fail to see how voluntary pre-commitment would work if mandatory pre-commitment won’t. If (as the Coalition and the Clubs industry claim, to name two) problem gamblers will bypass mandatory pre-commitment and keep playing, then surely they’ll just ignore voluntary pre-commitment.

The reality is simpler. Voluntary pre-commitment is supported by the industry because it CAN be ignored. The limit you set yourself earlier in the day? Not binding. It defeats the purpose.

There is also talk of a national training requirement for persons employed in the gambling industry. This would have to replace the state-based Responsible Service of Gambling training requirements (which every state and territory already has)… and is just about the first thing in this document that I don’t disagree with. However, replacing state training with national training is not likely to have a major impact on gambling addiction.

3. More Counselling and Support Services, and Better Research

What a concept. More and better counselling! More and better research! And to think we’ve been muddling along with the idea that minimal crap counselling and research was the way to go!

This entire section is fuzzy and vague. It’s all about “more” and “better” with very little detail about how that can be achieved.

Until they can tell us what “more” and “better” wil mean, then this will remain nothing more than a waste of a page and a half of this discussion paper.

4. Nationally Consistent ‘Self-Exclusion’ Programmes

Again, the Coalition is talking about something that already exists, and applying a national standard. It’s interesting that they say there are self-exclusion schemes currently operating in “some states” when in fact, every state and territory offers self-exclusion by law.

As with the RSG from the Voluntary Pre-Commitment topic, this is simply a case of reworking something we already have.

5. The Online Gambling Environment

The last three topics are where the Coalition is hoping to differentiate themselves from the government. They shift the focus away from poker machines, and this topic is about online gambling.

Unfortunately, their position with regards to online gambling and the current legislation is: do nothing. No change. Nada.

This is a real disappointment. If they’re going to have a specific policy on online gambling, surely they could try for something more than “business as usual”? Especially when the legislation governing online gambling is ten years old and doesn’t work very well.

For example: I’m of the firm opinion that online gambling in Australia needs a complete re-think. In order to protect our gambling population and ensure strict standards are met, I believe we should legalise online gambling, within a strict national framework and code of practice. Contentious? Sure. But I have my reasons, and I’ve given it a lot more thought than the Coalition have.

(if you’re interested in why I think we should legalise online gambling, read my article in the November issue of The King’s Tribune)

6. Credit Facilities (including Online)

Another point I agree with; they’re few and far between. But credit betting is a no-brainer. No betting company, venue or website should have the ability to offer credit to a gambler… and that includes the many sports betting companies that have sprung up over the past couple of years.

If you’re going to gamble, do it with your own money.

7. Advertising of Gambling Products (including Wagering)

While this topic purports to be about advertising, it really only focuses on the promotion of live odds. The Coalition believes that there should be no promotion of live odds during live play.

While I agree with this, it’s nothing new. This same topic was tackled by the government earlier in the year, and changes to the legislation are coming. The time is already coming when there will be no promotion of live odds during AFL or NRL games… and so as an attempt to stand apart from the government, this misses the mark.

There is no mention of any other form of gambling advertising. The stream of ads that we are inundated with every day on TV, radio, billboards, newspapers, the internet… ignored.

And that’s it.

My Summary

For all the fuss that the Coalition have made about this “discussion paper”, it is a seriously lightweight document. It attempts to stand apart from the government’s stated position on problem gambling yet there is no policy and no firm intent.

There is a strong suggestion that the Coalition’s primary focus is on minimising the disruption to the gambling industry, rather than on putting tools in place that ALL gamblers, recreational or otherwise, can use. The level of problem gambling in Australia is downplayed, and a number of statements have been lifted out of context from the 2010 Productivity Commission Report into Gambling to shore up this position.

While attempting to refute the Gillard Government’s proposed poker machine reforms, no mention is made of the actual nature of these reforms. There is no reference to low-intensity poker machines. There is no reference to exemptions for international tourists, or financial consideration for small poker machine venues. The paper states that “all gamblers will be required to join a mandatory scheme before they can play poker machines” which is not the case. The rebuttal is aimed squarely at mandatory pre-commitment, but by ignoring the rest of the reforms, it misses the mark.

As I mentioned earlier, this reads like a mission statement from Clubs Australia. It is therefore unsurprising that mere hours after the paper was released, Clubs Australia put out a media release of their own unequivocally supporting the Coalition approach. That on its own should be ringing a number of alarm bells.

What is true is that the Coalition’s suggested issues for their discussion paper mirror Clubs Australia’s position almost word for word.

The saddest thing about this paper is that is shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the poker machine addict, the problem gambler. Time and again we are told that “problem gamblers” will do this and “problem gamblers” will do that. They’ll get around the system, they’ll swap to other forms of gambling, they’ll do whatever it takes.

What is NOT mentioned is that many, many problem gamblers, and poker machine addicts in particular, are desperate for something they can use to exert control over their problems. The Coalition does not understand this, and it shows.

I was a poker machine addict for several years. As I wrote recently on The Drum, I spent most of that time hating what I was doing and looking for a way out… some way of imposing control, of taking my life back. At the very least, some way of minimising the damage, slowing down the destruction. I wanted to stop, but a voluntary pre-commitment card would have been useless to me, for once I reached my limit, I’d just keep going. But if that limit could be enforced, as per the current reform proposal… I would have jumped at the chance.

Reading this discussion paper made me angry. This is not aimed at helping anyone other than the gambling industry. The Coalition does not understand the people it is so keen to govern; they have been swayed by the clubs and pubs and have lost sight of what really matters.

The Coalition also fails to understand that every poker machine addict was once a recreational player. The addiction develops, sometimes quickly (as it did for me), sometimes slowly. To be truly effective, poker machine reform needs to work at the point of contact. It needs to be part of the playing experience. While the Gillard Government’s reforms are aimed at reducing & preventing gambling addiction, the Coalition’s alternative is aimed at picking up the pieces afterwards.

And by refusing to make any changes at all to the playing experience, other than voluntary pre-commitment that no player needs to use, the Coalition has failed.

The rest of the paper, dealing with credit betting, online gambling and live odds, seem to be almost an afterthought. For a discussion paper that claims to address “all types of gambling” (as per the accompanying Abbott/Andrews press release), it has very little to say about issues other than poker machines. It’s a depressing fact that this paper spends more time attacking the Gillard Government’s reforms, than it does discussing online gambling, credit betting and live odds/sports betting combined.

It’s an indictment on the attitude of the Coalition that they can offer this up as an alternative to the very real reforms that are currently on the table. The NSW Coalition famously signed a deal with Clubs NSW prior to the last state election; given the industry bias in this discussion paper, and the “Won’t Work Will Hurt” comments made recently by Tony Abbott on national TV, I’m left to wonder if a similar deal hasn’t been struck nationally.

6 thoughts on “my response to the coalition’s pretend gambling policy

  1. Yes Tom, I thought the same but was not surprised in the least. When reading it, it sounded very much like the Clubs speaking. On one level I agree about appropriate regulation of other forms gambling, credit etc. However, on another level I don’t because the arguments they are using to stop these reforms makes them hypocrites in this respect. The ‘nanny state’ type arguments are regularly rolled out as a reason for these reforms not to go through. Although there are a lot of holes in these arguments they use them for all they are worth. Therefore, when such people start justifying their position in this way then they have no real right to be talking about restrictions on other things. The benchmark has already been set for what is acceptable with gambling – a bloated revenue stream of 12 billion dollars from one form of gambling which consistently produces an overwhelming number of problems gamblers. Any attempt to rein in this problem in a serious way has been met with attempts at placation and more band aids – with a dash of patronization. Here we are once more faced with the same dud deal from Abbott & Co. I have to throw this in (below).

    A current favourite argument of Clubs Australia is that ‘problem gamblers’ should not be playing the machines… Well, this is an extract from their submission to the Productivity Commission inquiry (Clubs Australia DR sub359 p.30) it states “However, Clubs Australia takes issue with the quote by Walker on page 5.39. While Clubs Australia agrees that the aim is to assist problem gamblers to reform for life, this should not involve “helping people to quit gambling for life”. Gambling is a legitimate activity from which many people gain immense enjoyment. The aim of treatment should be to assist people to control their behaviour and gamble responsibly and within their means, rather than quit. As outlined previously in this chapter, recovery from a gambling problem need not be synonymous with abstinence.” If CA believes that counselling will somehow enable these people to be ‘trusted’ enough to ‘set sensible limits’. What makes them think that a full pre commitment system would not achieve the same thing when it is available at all times and can also be used as a preventative measure and enable self exclusion.

  2. Thank you :) That figure was detailed in the 2010 Productivity Commission Report into Gambling, and can be sourced back to the research of Dr Charles Livingstone and Dr Richard Woolley.

  3. The Coalition’s gambling policy – bought and paid for by Clubs Australia, with the profits they make from poker machine addicts.

  4. Great post, Tom. It almost seems like each problem gambler provides one job in the gaming industry.

    You’re right about the lack of policy heft: when I was in the NSW Young Liberals with Marise Payne we would come out with far more substantial policy documents than this.

    I liked a piece I read recently asking people to think about the phrase “won’t work” – won’t work at what? People still die in car accidents while totally sober and strapped into their seatbelts, yet nobody is calling for seatbelt and blood-alcohol laws to be scrapped.

  5. The paper is deeply embarrassing as any sort of policy document. If Clubs Australia had written it they may have done a better job.

    It cites almost no evidence, some cherry picked bits from the PC 2010 report and then some citations from the Joint Select committee report. But who do they cite? Well one from the main body of the report, this is an entire page of evidence from Clubs Australia in fact, and then two pages from the Coalition committee members dissenting opinion in the report, pages featuring quotes from the Australian Casino Authority.

    That’s it, apart from repeating Clubs Australia’s misinterpretation of the Norway report. There is a tonne of research out there but nearly all inconvenient so they don’t bother.

    One could say it is both incompetent and very lazy. However, it’s just window dressing after all for the larger political game, a game in which the lives of gambling addicts, their families or the costs to the community are irrelevant. But it’s really cheap and nasty window dressing, and quite see through.

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