recommendation 36

Julia Gillard’s tenure as Prime Minister has been brief and certainly turbulent. The mining tax, a price on carbon, health reforms, our clean energy future, the Malaysia solution… there’s always something going on. But there’s one issue that has woven itself throughout her time in the top job, an issue that was ignored by everyone during last year’s election but which was pivotal not only in winning her the job, but ensuring she keeps it.

Poker machines.

As an election issue, the pokies were non-existent. Let’s face it, the closest either side came to talking about poker machines was when they had to talk over them, during the People’s Forum at the Rooty Hill RSL. But as a post-election issue, suddenly they were the hottest ticket in town; Andrew Wilkie’s unexpected success in Denison made sure of that. And it was Gillard who won on the pokies that time, securing Wilkie’s vote in exchange for her promise to bring about real poker machine reform.

Predictably, the gambling industry (led by ClubsAustralia and the AHA) were a little put out by this. No, let’s be honest… they were incensed. This was a betrayal of the highest order; clubs would shut their doors, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars would be lost, and those pesky problem gamblers would just keep on stuffing things up for the rest of us. In short, the sky would come crashing down. It was pokiegeddon.

Yet behind the scenes, in stark contrast to their standard ham-fisted approach to everything, some subtle machinations were at work. The Clubs industry knew full well that public opinion would play an important part in the pursuit of reform; after all, no politician would support a scheme that would see them thrown out of office. And so they began working the media, picking emotive topics and riding them for all they were worth.

Forty per cent, they cried. That’s how much revenue these reforms will cost us! Woe! It was a figure that was picked up and repeated time and time again, unquestioned, by all levels of the media. Finally Mediawatch stepped in and revealed that this was a furphy; forty per cent was an estimate of how much poker machine revenue comes from problem gamblers.

Fingerprinting, they cried. The government will treat us like criminals! Woe! Barely a day went by when there wasn’t a new article featuring a random club manager from somewhere in regional NSW bemoaning this imposition on our civil liberties. Funny how all of those articles featured club personnel, isn’t it? Also amusing that many clubs in and around Sydney already fingerprint their drinking patrons. Hmmm.

A licence to punt, they cried. You’ll need to register to have a flutter! Big Brother nanny state something something wowser un-Australian! Woe, oh bloody woe! There was a campaign (yes, that one) that was launched, wound back in embarrassment and quietly re-launched again. There were promises of support from the Federal Coalition, state governments, even the NRL. There were, and continue to be, rallies in the clubs’ heartlands, with much jeering of Labor MPs and recorded messages of support from Alan Jones.

There were many things; what was missing was the truth, and deliberately so. ClubsAustralia have aimed their campaign at a proposal that doesn’t exist, and they’ve taken the media along with them for the ride.

Let’s examine this. By now, pretty much everyone is familiar with the concept of mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines. That’s the concept that ClubsAustralia have twisted into their “Licence to Punt”, and it’s the basis of everything their campaign is against. But it’s only half the picture.

Have you heard of Recommendation 36? ClubsAustralia have, and so has the media. Gambling researchers Charles Livingstone and Richard Wooley suggested it; Andrew Wilkie and Nick Xenophon have spoken about it at length. Recommendation 36 is a fundamental part of the government’s poker machine reform proposal, yet after an initial flurry of activity back in May, it’s been widely ignored.

Recommendation 36, from the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform’s report on mandatory pre-commitment states:

The committee recommends that low intensity machines, configured to reliably limit player losses to an average loss of around $120 per hour, do not need to be part of the mandatory pre-commitment system. Specifically the committee recommends these machines feature a $1 maximum bet limit, a $500 maximum prize and a $20 maximum load up. The use of these machines should be monitored by the national regulatory authority to identify any unintended consequences and the extent to which they contribute to reducing problem gambling prevalence rates.

Well, how about that? Poker machines with a $1 maximum bet. Poker machines designed to limit player losses.

Poker machines that you can play without a card.

This is not a new idea. Just like mandatory pre-commitment, the concept of $1 maximum bets and lower payouts was discussed at length and recommended by the Productivity Commission in their report from last year.

ClubsAustralia know about it. When the reform proposal was released in May, they derided the idea of $1 pokies, calling them “fruit machines” like the ones they have in the UK. An inaccurate statement, but that’s nothing new.

The media knows about it. When the reform proposal was released, there was a flurry of stories about the “hybrid” option of high and low intensity machines. Lateline even featured a cage match between Wilkie and ClubsAustralia’s Anthony Ball where the topic of low intensity poker machines was discussed on national TV.

Yet fast forward a couple of months, and no one’s talking about it. The clubs are still railing against their “Licence to Punt,” still saying that you’ll need to register before you can play a poker machine. The papers are still talking about mandatory pre-commitment. And hardly anyone’s saying a word about $1 poker machines.

This is quite deliberate. Once again, ClubsAustralia are setting the agenda for the media to follow. By ignoring Recommendation 36 and focussing on pre-commitment, they hope to swing public opinion their way. They’re not telling their members, or the public in general, about low intensity poker machines, despite the fact that this is a simpler, cheaper option to implement than pre-commitment technology. They’re playing on people’s fears and insecurities, and the media is playing right along. $1 poker machines are rarely mentioned, and when they are, it’s usually as an afterthought. The blowtorch of media attention is well and truly centred on mandatory pre-commitment; that’s the way ClubsAustralia wants it.

After all, where would their precious “un-Australian” campaign be if club members realised that they could still play their pokies without a pre-commitment card? That their ruling body has been lying to them all this time?

Talk about taking a gamble.

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