tackling problem gambling in australia – my analysis

Today, less than a week after Australia’s media decided that the Julia Gillard was walking away from Andrew Wilkie and poker machine reforms, the Federal government announced its plan to tackle problem gambling.

In recent days, indeed in recent months much has been made of the battle between mandatory and voluntary pre-commitment; between pre-commitment in general and $1 bets; between any kind of reform and the alternative of increased counselling and exclusion measures.

The gambling industry, Clubs Australia in particular, have attacked any avenue to reform with relentless savagery. Their concentrated campaigns would appear to have had a small impact on public opinion, and definitely seems to have given the ALP pause for thought.

Then again, the angry public response to the media’s suggestion that poker machine reform was dead has no doubt given the government a taste of what would happen if they did, in fact, renege on their deal with Wilkie.

Which brings us to today’s announcement. It is, naturally, a compromised solution, but it is not a backflip. Indeed, in some ways it goes further than the original proposal.

Poker Machines & Pre-Commitment

The key to this reform package is still pre-commitment technology. The government will legislate that ALL poker machines manufactured from January 2013 MUST support pre-commitment, and that ALL poker machines in operation in Australia must be part of a “state linked pre-commitment system”.

Which means that every single poker machine in Australia, regardless of bet limit, will have the capacity for pre-commitment.

There will also be a “large-scale” trial of mandatory pre-commitment. This is the important point; whereas a trial has only been spoken about as a possibility up until now, the government is finally saying that it will happen. And what’s more, if the trial results indicate that mandatory pre-commitment is effective, then the entire country’s poker machine networks will be switched over to mandatory pre-commitment.

It will be of the utmost importance that this trial is not left to, or unduly influenced by, the poker machine industry. In my opinion it must be independently run with input from both sides of the reform divide. It is crucial that the trial be thorough, unbiased and absolutely transparent.

There is no mention of $1 bets in this announcement. This will undoubtably draw heavy criticism from its supporters, such as the Greens, Nick Xenophon and many sections of the media. But this only serves to emphasise that the government’s approach is focused on pre-commitment… and the fact that $1 bets were not mentioned does not mean that they may not become a reality at some later stage. It also doesn’t stop our state governments from legislating in this fashion, as may already be happening in Tasmania.

Where this announcement goes further than the original proposal (from May last year) is that it places pre-commitment on EVERY poker machine. Sure, it will be rolled out over the next four years and will remain optional until the trial is complete… but again, we’re talking about ALL poker machines, not just some.

And, importantly, that is consistent with the recommendations of the Productivity Commission report that everyone refers back to sooner or later. The Commission recommended a comprehensive mandatory pre-commitment system, nation-wide, following a large-scale trial to proof its effectiveness and fine-tune the technology. That is exactly what we are seeing now.

Poker Machines & Other Reforms

The government’s announcement is not limited to pre-commitment technology. They have also formalised their commitment to:

* $250 withdrawal limits on ATMs in gaming venues (except casinos) by February 2013

* Warnings and cost-of-play displays on all poker machines by 2016

* Additional counselling support, and an expansion of Gambling Help Online

* Stronger self-exclusion arrangements

* Improved staff training

Hopefully, this will shut up the industry who have been wailing for months about how the government is ignoring such steps. Better counselling, self-exclusion and training in particular have been held up by Clubs Australia as the better alternative to pre-commitment; well now they have nothing to complain about.

And again, this doesn’t stop state government from implementing legislation that goes even further, such as Victoria’s plan to remove ATMs from poker machine venues altogether.

It is worth noting at this point that it is NOT a case of which reforms are better, the Federal or State proposals. They are fundamentally different. But together, they can have a massive impact on problem gambling, and although I have no doubt this is unintentional, they will complement each other in most areas.

The Rest Of The Reforms

One criticism that has been levelled at the government by both the Federal Opposition and the poker machine industry is that they are focusing on poker machines and ignoring every other form of gambling.

While this has always been particularly stupid argument, as the government’s premise was to tackle poker machine addiction, the government has responded by broadening their view via today’s announcement. And their proposals make those put forward by the Opposition (in their “discussion paper” package) look extremely pedestrian.

The government, according to their announcement, will:

* Ban live-odds promotion during sports coverage

* Extend pre-commitment to online betting services

* Crack down on credit bets for online sports betting companies and introduce tighter controls on betting inducements

* Give ACMA (Australian Communications and Media Authority) increased power to enforce these new rules

The extension of pre-commitment to online betting is a major step. I look forward to more detail on this proposal, but on face value it is a significant commitment from the government.

And the ban on live odds promotion is one that everyone supports, but it’s good to see it formally recognised.

Overall

I expect that this proposal, this announcement from the government will be attacked by the media and the industry. Not because it can’t work, but because that’s what they do.

The reality is that while the government has not guaranteed ironclad support for mandatory pre-commitment, they have not rejected it either. And they have promised that EVERY poker machine will contain pre-commitment technology, and be part of a linked pre-commitment system. Once the system is actually in place, the industry will no longer be able to use the “cost of reform” as an excuse. It will already be there. And the decision to turn it on will, consequently, be a far smaller, far easier one than it is today.

This announcement removes most of the arguments that Clubs Australia have been using to wage their campaigns. It commits to a trial, but will introduce the technology independently of that trial. It addresses a broader range of areas, including counselling and training. And it also addresses online and sports betting, although these will need to be more thoroughly addressed in the near future.

After reading through the proposal and weighing up what it means, not to mention all the consideration I’ve given the matter over the past 16 months, I find myself cautiously optimistic. The government’s commitment to introduce the technology is pivotal, and is a major step in the right direction.

This was never going to be a fight that could be won quickly. The poker machine industry is so entrenched, especially in New South Wales, that any change must by necessity be gradual. This announcement recognises this.

What I will be watching extremely closely from this point on is the trial. Everything will hinge on the trial. And if Clubs Australia manage to get involved, then we can kiss meaningful reform goodbye.

Clubs Australia have stated repeatedly that they want a trial, not to formulate an effective scheme, but to prove it won’t work. They are biased towards the failure of this concept, and must NOT be allowed to pervert the process.

What many don’t realise is this. The trial of mandatory pre-commitment that is being proposed will be a world first, in terms of scope, intention and impact. Gambling associations and governments from around the world will be watching what happens extremely closely, because of the impact it could have on their own industries.

So should the administration of this trial be mishandled, by giving it to industry-friendly academics or the industry themselves, then it’s not just Australians who will notice. This country, already a global laughing stock because of our plague of poker machines, will be doubly so because of our inability to do anything about it… even when we’re given the chance.

The door has not slammed on poker machine reform and pre-commitment… yet. But the trial will be the key.

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10 Responses

  1. RET says:

    Excellent, succinct analysis, Tom. I think this is a very hopeful step. It would seem to me that most of the ClubsNSW complaints and ammunition have been neutralised in this proposal.

    Very strange that Wilkie should withdraw his support for the Government following this announcement. It seems to me that without sufficient cross-bench and no opposition support, they weren’t left with much choice. I’m very pleased to see that the fear they would completely cave on the topic has proven ill-founded.

    Keep up the good work, mate.

  2. ernmalleyscat says:

    Great analysis. I trust your take on all this because of your obvious commitment to actually solving the problem rather than posturing. I hope this gets around.

  3. You are the only commentator I take seriously on this issue.
    For one who can see so clearly through the BS, I find it hard to understand how you ever had a problem with the damn fool machines. However, I have heard of Philosophy Professors that have ended up on the street, so anything’s possible I guess.
    One thing I can’t understand, I must say, is the ungrateful reaction of leaders of Problem Gambling Support Groups who were interviewed today. Disgusting reactions, for mine, as they couldn’t wait to spit out quickly enough that they wouuld never vote Labor because, according to them, they had caved to the Clubs Industry. Not, as you have suggested, that it has been a sophisticated response. If you know any of them in Melbourne, can you put a rocket up them? They are not helping the effort to get anything done.

  4. David Crowe says:

    I found your analysis interesting but not helped by the generalisation at the top. To say “the media’s suggestion that poker machine reform was dead” is putting up a staw man to make your own analysis seem more trustworthy. It’s a common tactic online.

    The media is a big business and there were a lot of reports about this during the week. I certainly never wrote in the AFR that poker machine reform was dead. The Age didn’t, SMH didn’t. Maybe some did but I can’t recall it.

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting read.

  5. cyenne says:

    Thanks for reading, David. That’s a fair call; I could have referred to “some sections of the media” instead. Noted.

    I was referring to articles such as these:

    $1 pokies betting limit looms

    Wilkie keeps cards close to his chest on pokie reform

    Licence-to-punt laws are ‘doomed to fail’

    Andrew Wilkie’s pokie reform all but buried after meeting Julia Gillard

    …as well as the flood of articles that opened with Wilkie’s statement denying that the reforms were “dead in the water”. An unfortunate quote for him to make, but one that supplied plenty of ammunition.

  6. Paul Bendat says:

    Your views are charmingly naive

  7. cyenne says:

    Thanks Paul… I assume that’s better then being offensively naive!

    I prefer to think of it as being positive. If there’s one thing I learned from quitting the pokies, it was the importance of being positive.

  8. tflip says:

    Agree the trial is now a key in any movement forward. However, I am pessimistic because all actions of the govt so far show they have little commitment to actual reform.

    – Apparently little or no lobbying of Tony Crook was done

    – They never really took on the Clubs campaign, their own campaign was low key and vague about detail

    – The NSW backbenchers are just interested in being re-elected to govt or opposition

    – The industry has already said it will sit on the panel overseeing the trial

    – the “no point in legislating because we would lose on the floor” argument also reveals the lack of commitment. Forget the cross-benchers, who’s to say some Liberals of conscience might not cross the floor. Having a vote would leave all representatives accountable before the people. But that would be uncomfortable and not pragmatic. Besides suppose the legislation got through, there would then be a Labor backbench revolt.

    What the trial itself is about, and therefore how it will be evaluated, remains vague. It seems likely it will be held to the impossible standard favoured by the industry lobby, that it “end problem gambling” rather than just substantially reduce the harm it does (the actual point of the PC recommending it).

    While I take your point about installation of per-commitment technology I am still cautious. What technology actually is installed also remains hostage to fortune. Industry will push to have it not amenable to mandatory per-commitment just voluntary, thus giving them another fall-back cost argument in a worst case scenario of facing govt reform again. Thought such reform should now be at least 7 years away since the Libs will win at least the next two elections and might even be contesting the Greens for the one after that.

    And don’t you just love the fact that the “trial” will probably end up handing the industry “compensation” that will be more than the money they’ve had to spend bringing the govt to heel.

    Still enough pessimism, your positivity Tom is a welcome rallying cry to the people at large to keep pushing the issue in the face of rich and powerful self-interest. It is pushing by the citizenry that will give the trial any chance of success.

  9. Braveheart says:

    I think your analysis is a calm and thoughtful one. I am also cautiously optimistic 🙂

  10. Libby Mitchell says:

    I think that all of the comments thus far miss one very important point…the public was asking for much harder reforms than was offered. When Wilkie’s reform ideas were expected to apply to every poker machine user, the families and other citizens supported it. Support was clearly insufficient for the hybrid system to succeed.

    Now the 2013 trial will further weaken an already too weak reform initiative. Increasingly in reader comments the public view was being expressed that banning of pokies at least out of local venues, was preferred to any other reform. That position is also backed by any person who is fully informed upon pokies addiction problems, since close proximity is the fundamental risk factor for pokies addiction.

    How about we have a trial on that initiative?

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