When I heard the news yesterday that the Victorian government was announcing new poker machine reforms, I was understandably interested. There hadn’t been any warning that an announcement was on the cards… what kind of reforms were they going to announce? After years of inertia and tinkering around the edges, were we finally going to see some change that really mattered?
Short answer: no. What the government actually announced yesterday was a number of measures that will help pokies venues and the government themselves, but leaves the rest of us out in the cold.
So what were the reforms?
• The existing cap of 27,372 poker machines in Victorian pubs and clubs would remain in place and be frozen for the next 25 years
• Poker machine venue licences would be extended from the current 10 years to 20 year terms
• Doubling the number of poker machines a club operator can run, from 420 to 840
• Individual venues would remain capped at 105 poker machines
• Allowing pubs to purchase unused club poker machine entitlements
• Changing the current poker machine taxation requirements
That’s it, in a nutshell. Oh, they promised more announcements in the months to come about harm minimisation measures, as well as more detail on the taxation changes, but until they’re announced they’re just so much hot air. So what we’re left with is half a dozen “reforms” that will, according to Victoria’s Gambling Minister Marlene Kairouz, “help limit gambling related harm”.
Let’s look at that.
Two of these measures – freezing poker machine numbers and keeping venue caps – can be summarised as “do nothing for 25 years”. This isn’t a reform. Sure, it means the number of poker machines in the state won’t go up… but it also means there’s no intention of reducing that figure any time soon. The number of pokies in Victoria has been more or less static for years now, yet losses continue to rise and individuals, families and communities continue to suffer the harm that poker machines bring. This is a do-nothing measure in search of a headline.
By contrast, two other measures – extending poker machine licences and increasing club operator entitlements – are all about doubling the benefits… for the industry. 20 year licences, taking effect 5 years from now, all but guarantee that the poker machine landscape in Victoria won’t change until 2042. Terrible for you and me… but great for the industry. And as for clubs? Well, you may have seen the stories talking about the possibility for AFL clubs to become gambling behemoths, running up to 8 major club venues each. Under this reform, that’s entirely possible. It leads Victoria down the path that NSW went down decades ago, concentrating gambling power in the clubs sector and allowing them to further shroud their exploits behind a veneer of respectability.
As for the rest? I won’t speak to the mooted taxation changes as they’re still to be announced. But allowing pubs to take up unused club poker machine entitlements is a dangerous and slippery slope. Right now there is a 50:50 poker machine split in Victoria between clubs and pubs, and has been for decades. This government is proposing to end that arrangement and if they do, expect to see smaller clubs selling their entitlements to hotels around the state as they chase a quick buck. The playing field will become even more lopsided and losses will continue to grow; Victorians always lose more on pub pokies than in clubs.
The other winner in this? You guessed it: the Victorian government themselves. Locking in the status quo for another 25 years means they can accurately forecast poker machine taxation revenue in their annual budgets. It’s a sad state of affairs when the financial bottom line is more important than people.
Look, I’m eagerly awaiting the next announcement from the government, which is supposed to detail their new harm minimisation initiatives. But I’m not holding my breath. It won’t come through for months and when it does, I can just about guarantee it won’t hold any water. But seriously, to try and sell this package of “reforms” as measures to “help limit gambling related harm” is just insulting.