The Federal election of 2010 was one of the strangest and most evenly-balanced elections in Australian history. The counting of votes dragged on, and it became apparent that neither the ALP nor the Coalition would be able to govern in their own right. Deals would need to be struck.
As it became increasingly likely that the formerly safe Labor seat of Dennison in Tasmania would fall to Independent Andrew Wilkie, the anti-pokies candidate opened discussions with Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. More than that, he compiled a list of priorities that he wanted addressed. Front and centre on this list was the implementation of a $1 cap on pokie gambling, nation-wide.
History will tell that Wilkie’s discussions with Gillard went one step further. They struck a deal whereby a Federal Labor government would require the states and territories to implement mandatory pre-commitment technology for poker machines by 2015. More than that, they would explore the options available to them to force local governments to comply in the event that they resisted this reform.
This is undoubtably the most significant step in gambling reform in this nation’s history. We have close to 200,000 poker machines spread across the country, taking over $10 billion a year out of the community. At least $4 billion of this comes from problem gamblers, and the further cost to society in terms of the impact on families, friends and workplaces is enormous. Mandatory pre-commitment technology has the potential to prevent problem gambling behaviours from developing, as well as helping those who already struggle with gambling addiction.
There are a number of similarities between pre-commitment technologies for poker machines, and another harm-minimisation measure that was implemented 40 years ago. In 1970, the Victorian state government passed legislation that made wearing seatbelts mandatory, and in doing so became the first government in the world to make this decision.
At the time, cars were required to have seatbelts, but wearing them was optional, and few did. Victoria’s road toll hovered around 1,000 deaths a year. Most drivers recognised that seatbelts were an important safety measure, but few believed that they should be required to wear them by law. There was, in fact, a widely held belief that drivers who were killed in road accidents had themselves, and their actions, to blame.
Many organisations supported the call for mandatory seatbelts, but there were also many who opposed such measures. They claimed that mandatory seatbelts would encourage reckless driving, that they were unproven, and an infringement on our civil liberties. They also pointed out that such a law would be difficult, if not impossible to enforce.
Despite this opposition, the law was passed. It was soon picked up by other states in Australia, and then in other countries around the world. Victoria’s annual road toll started to drop. Injuries were lessened. New research was commissioned into the design and manufacture of seatbelts, which became stronger and safer. Drivers and their passengers became used to wearing them as a matter of course, and the police became adept at enforcing their use. Safety became fashionable, and led to further research into air bags, better braking and steering systems, and more recently crash-avoidance technology.
Today, it’s unthinkable not to buckle up when you get in a car. Over the past 40 years, thousands of lives have been saved in Victoria alone by the implementation of this one simple safety device. Essendon champion David Hille, who survived a car crash in his youth that killed three of his mates solely because he was wearing his seatbelt, recently became the face of the 40-year anniversary of mandatory seatbelts in Victoria. More than that, he petitioned his club and the AFL to allow Essendon to wear a special once-off jumper commemorating the event.
The parallels between seatbelts and pre-commitment technologies are unavoidable. Problem gambling directly affects only a small percentage of the population, but the impact on society is enormous. There is a widespread belief that gambling addicts alone are responsible for their actions, and the damage they cause is no one’s fault but theirs. And while there have been many calls for pre-commitment technology over the years, there have also been powerful voices resisting their consideration. Not surprisingly, these voices emanate from those areas that stand to lose the most should Australia’s gambling problems be significantly addressed, and the loudest voice of all belongs to Clubs Australia.
The clubs of Australia are peculiar beasts. Established as not-for-profit organisations, their purpose is ostensibly to serve the needs of members and the community. Yet they have become thoroughly addicted to the steady stream of income that pokies generate, and every decision they make, every objection they raise, is focussed on maintaining that status quo.
Clubs across the country enjoy concessions such as favourable tax rates in comparison to hotels, but in NSW it goes much further than that. NSW is arguably the flagship state of Clubs Australia; with 1400 venues and 72,000 poker machines, the clubs of NSW not only pay less tax than hotels, but also have no limits placed on how many machines they can have. Hotels in NSW are allowed to operate a maximum of 30 poker machines each; clubs have no such restrictions. This has given rise to “gambling mega-centres” such as the Rooty Hill RSL, scene of the Gillard-Abbott “people’s forum” and reportedly home to 800 poker machines. To put this in perspective, only nine Local Government Areas in the whole of Victoria have more.
Holding the reins is Anthony Ball, variously described as the chief executive of Clubs Australia and Clubs NSW. Maybe he’s both. Ball has somehow managed to reconcile the operation of tens of thousands of poker machines with serving the community, and he is fiercely protective of his clubs and the pokies they maintain.
When Wilkie was talking about a $1 gambling cap, Ball was proclaiming why it wouldn’t work. He also petitioned the ALP and Coalition against the idea and sought assurances that gambling reform wouldn’t be brought in without consultation with the clubs. And once the Gillard/Wilkie deal was struck, with pre-commitment technology at its centre, Ball spoke up again, claiming the government had betrayed the clubs and broken their promises. Stories began to pop up in local and national newspapers describing how these changes would shut clubs and hotels, cost jobs and potentially spell the end of the clubs industry.
Such hysteria is self-serving and more than a little embarrassing. This deal will not get rid of pokies, nor will it stop people playing them. It will only stop people from spending more than they, themselves, say they are prepared to spend.
In every way, pre-commitment technology is a seatbelt. The vast majority of gamblers will use it, get used to it, and carry on as before. The minority who are problem gamblers or seriously at risk will be stopped before their gambling hurtles out of control. And the only profits lost will be those that should never have been had in the first place.
For Ball and his clubs to object to this measure shows simply that they are serving themselves, not the community. There are far more reputable ways of earning money than by bleeding it from the community they profess to serve; their time and energy would be far better spent investigating these alternatives, because in a few years time they’re going to need it.
Pre-commitment technology is coming.