Friday, March 3, 2017

Submission to Senate Shark Mitigation Inquiry

Councilor Keith Williams
Ballina Shire

Submission to Senate Environment and Communications References Committee Inquiry into Shark mitigation and deterrent measures

This submission primarily focuses on Terms of Reference b) c) e) and g).

I have been a Ballina Shire Councilor since 2012. I hold a Bachelor of Science (Environmental Studies) and have worked as a senior manager in the non-profit and local government sectors and am currently a Green Army Supervisor. I am also Vice President of Australian Seabird Rescue Inc and from 2008 to 2015 was onsite Caretaker of the seabird and marine turtle rehabilitation centre based in Ballina. This submission represents my own views and not those of any organisation.

Shark nets are a particularly destructive form of shark mitigation that are not effective in keeping people safe. Their deployment on the North Coast of NSW in December 2016 makes a mockery of the protections for endangered species envisaged in the EPBC Act.

The Legal Framework - TOR b)
The exemption granted from the requirements of the EPBC Act that enabled the deployment of shark nets on the North Coast is at this moment in time seriously endangering marine wildlife that is supposedly subject to the protections of the Act.

The legal basis for this decision must be questioned.

There has been no widespread economic impact associated with sharks. The use of a highly selected group of local businesses (eg surf shops) to allege that some broader economic catastrophe confronted the region is seriously misleading and is in my view an abuse of the emergency provisions of the Act.

The region has in fact experienced its busiest holiday period in recent memory, most likely influenced by the completion of the Pacific Highway upgrade between Byron Bay and Ballina.

The by-catch data released to date by NSW DPI indicates a serious impact on several endangered and protected species. These include Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill sea turtles, Hammerhead and other sharks and Bottlenose Dolphins.

Prior to the deployment of shark nets NSW DPI promised the local community that a number of by-catch mitigation measures would be undertaken. This included:
·         the nets would be fitted with smart alarm technology to alert operators that an animal was trapped in the net;
·         the nets would be checked twice daily;
·         the nets would not be deployed if they were unable to be checked due to bad weather.

None of these commitments have been fulfilled. There is no functioning smart alarm technology and none has been fitted to the installed nets. NSW DPI's own records indicate the nets have barely been checked once a day. Nets have been left in place for extended periods.

I do not know what undertakings NSW DPI gave to the Commonwealth Department. Did these promised mitigation measures feature in the Environment Ministers approval? Are NSW DPI in breach of the terms of their approval? I believe these are important questions to be answered.

The deployment of a shark net at Lennox Head inside the Cape Byron Marine Park, which has resulted in the death of protected species within the Marine Park, must also be seriously questioned.

It is imperative that at the conclusion of the trial period, the nets are removed and any continuing deployment is subject to a thorough assessment in accordance with the EPBC Act.

Mitigation Measures - TOR c)
The deployment of shark nets does not make people safer. At best they offer a false sense of security, with many people believing the nets provide an effective barrier to sharks. At only 150m long and set 4m below the surface, the nets do not operate as a barrier, but as a fishing device.

I cannot envisage a Risk Assessment matrix which would accord any priority to a control measure with such limited effectiveness and which creates additional risk by suspending dead and dying wildlife near swimmers.

As most surf clubs would attest, safety is best assured through constant vigilance. The deployment of dedicated spotters and drone technology either through groups such as SharkWatch (NSW) or by surf clubs themselves would provide a much more effective level of protection to beach users.

I was disappointed that the shark-barriers trialed at Ballina and Lennox Head failed. I was alarmed that the barrier at Lennox Head broke up during installation, scattering plastic fragments along the beach. In my view, NSW DPI did not react swiftly enough to a marine pollution incident within a marine park.

I believe there is an opportunity to trial the Eco-barrier that was to be been installed at Lighthouse Beach at the much calmer beaches within the adjacent Richmond River mouth. I am deeply disappointed that NSW DPI have so far refused to fund a trial of the technology at these more appropriate locations.

The management of sharks by the NSW Government has been an exercise in media management and a failure of proper policy processes. Every incident followed by yet another ministerial announcement. Beach alarms, rescue kits and observation towers have all been promised but their deployment has been extremely slow and cumbersome.

The 'attack' at Sharpes Beach, which became the day the NSW Premier announced the North Coast shark nets trial, was an incident so minor, the person received a single puncture wound, did not realise he had been bitten until leaving the water and drove himself to hospital. I've received more severe injuries stumbling into poorly discarded barbed-wire. I have no doubt the incident was terrifying and it is not one I would care to share, but by any objective measure it cannot be used to justify the wholesale slaughter of protected species.

By-Catch   - ToR e)
At time of writing we have two months worth of by-catch data from the North Coast shark net trial. If current trends continue the trial will have a major negative impact on local protected species. These include Loggerhead, Green and Hawksbill sea turtles, Hammerhead and other sharks, Manta and other rays and Bottlenose Dolphins.

So far 2 Bottlenose dolphins have been killed by the nets, one in each month. If this continues for the remaining 4 months of the trial, it could be expected that we will decimate (kill 10% of) the local pod of 60 dolphins that inhabit the Richmond River. And this is just in the trial period.

In January a female adult Loggerhead turtle died in the nets. She is one of an estimated 15 (make that 14) female Loggerheads thought to be breeding on North Coast beaches.

Populations of endangered wildlife are, by definition, especially vulnerable to sudden increases in mortality.

Tourism Impacts ToR g)
The claim that shark related incidents have a major economic impact on tourism is unfounded. While there were clearly impacts on local wetsuit and surfboard manufacturers and retail surf-shops, there is no data to suggest a shire or region wide tourism downturn during the past two years.

Continued sensationalist media coverage of sharks did raise concerns that there may be a measurable impact on tourism, however the record summer experienced in Ballina suggests any negative impacts are far outweighed by the provision of modern infrastructure, Ballina-Byron Airport and the Pacific Highway upgrade being major contributors.

A local proposal for the building of an Ocean Pool at Shelley Beach could also positively impact tourism opportunities.

As a former Executive Officer of Ecotourism Australia, my view is also tempered by the knowledge that a healthy environment and opportunities for wildlife encounters are significant positive motivators in tourism purchasing decisions. Watching dolphins play in the waves is a common local tourism image for good reason.

The continued loss of iconic species such as turtles, dolphins and whales is likely to have a more significant negative impact on tourism than the presence of sharks.

If shark nets had any major impact on either beach safety or tourism then we could expect some discernible difference between the experience of Ballina (trialling nets, no spotters) and Byron (trialling spotters, no nets) since the beginning of December 2016.

There simply is none.

Except for the mounting pile of dead marine wildlife in Ballina.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Abbot Point is not just a place.

Re-posting this after last night's 4 Corners. The coal to be exported through Abbott Point will kill the entire reef and many innocent people. There are bigger issues than the dredge spoil.

Every generation has its defining moment. A marker in time of social change. Americans probably think immediately of Woodstock. For Australians of my generation, I think Franklin Dam. Not just a protest, but the birth of a movement.

I started University in 1983, the year after the protests. "Missed it by that much", as Maxwell Smart would say.

I met this amazing group of people who had just returned, not only energized by the success of the campaign, but empowered by the experience and expressing this new found confidence in themselves in all aspects of life.

I envied their self confidence, I wanted some of it. I hung around with this crowd. I drank with them. I debated politics with them. I learned from them and I gained a bit of courage. I stood for Student Union President and won.

I became a rent-a-crowd member for a while, lending my voice to various causes. But to be honest, my heart was never in it. I'd prefer to spend my time bashing my head against the wall in Committee meetings, where there was at least a chance of a rational debate and outcome.

I've since spent my working life doing just that, for a variety of causes. Most recently being elected a local Councillor for Ballina Shire in NSW. I have a comfortable life. I help run a well-respected marine wildlife rescue organisation, my dream boat project is near completion, and my gorgeous family are for the most part healthy and happy.

So why am I suddenly so angry? Why have I said more swear words on twitter in the past week than the entire previous year?

It's not like I've been short of things to be angry about. Even when I just limit it to the environment (I know there's so much more), there's a fair list of truly disturbing trends.

Much of my work for the past five years has been about plastic marine debris, afflicting at least 1/3 of the birds and sea turtles we treat at Australian Seabird Rescue. The problem continues to worsen, the large corporate interests continue to oppose action and we may reach the point in the next generation where we are unable to eat wild caught seafood due to high levels of toxic contaminates. But that's not it.

Allowing fishing in NSW Marine Parks, the culling of sharks in WA, both stupid, but they're not it either.

Much of the Northern Rivers region of NSW, including my own Shire, is under threat from industrial scale Coal Seam Gas mining, potentially thousands of wells. Following the latest round of State Government appeasements/ regulations, very little of our Shire, excluding the urban settlements, is protected. I have watched the well site protests to the north and south of me. It's getting closer.

There is no doubt whatsoever that the overwhelming majority of my community do not want the CSG industry here. I have stated publicly that I will do all in my power to oppose CSG. I'm now at the pointy end. Does "all in my power" include getting chained to a fence or bulldozer. Will I stand at the Shire border in my white robes and declare in my best Gandalf voice, "none shall pass". I think so. It scares the living daylights out of me, but I'm psyching myself. But even that's not what has got me so angry.

It's Abbot Point.

And the stupid decision that this site in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef should be the preferred location for what will become the world's largest coal terminal.

To make matters worse, the Authority that's supposed to protect this '1 of the 7 natural wonders of the world' reef, will allow 3 million cubic metres of dredging spoil to be dumped within the bondaries of the marine park.

This is not just some whinge of the greeny lefty fringe, that this is even being considered has the rest of the world wondering what's going on in Australia.

But Abbot Point is not just about the Reef. This is much more important.

This coal terminal is being built to ship the vast coal deposits of the Galilee Basin. In full production this project, if compared to the output of entire countries, will become the 7th largest emitter of CO2 in the world. It will dwarf Australia's entire emissions from other sources.

I have long advocated putting a price on carbon pollution. Even back in the mid-eighties, I debated the merits of various forms of carbon abatement as part of my studies in natural resource economics at University.

Putting a price on pollution works. The dreaded Carbon Tax is working. A $7.6% fall in carbon dioxide pollution in its first year, a barely perceptible blip in inflation and strong economic growth. But it's doomed. No amount of sensible debate will save it now.

At an International level the picture is clear. We are now as certain that humans are causing climate change as we are that cigarettes cause cancer. The fossil fuel merchants are today's tobacco companies. Peddling a product which we know will kill millions of people.

We are not just on trend for the dangerous, but adaptable, 2c warming our governments deem is acceptable. If we do not begin to drastically reduce emissions within a decade or so we are consigning our children and grand children to live in a world of catastrophe.

The disaster of four degrees of warming by the end of the cenutry is barely believable, more akin to the post-apocolyptic vision of science-fiction writers I consumed as an adolescent, but it is the path we are on.

The full exploitation of the Galilee Coal basin could well be the difference between 2c or a 4c or higher increase in global temperatures. It doesn't matter where in the world it is burnt.

I am amazed to find after a lifetime of believing that economics is the solution to climate change, that I am wrong.

If I want to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the sea grass beds, the coral reefs and the incredible wildlife from the effects of smothering by silt, bleaching due to rising sea temperatures and destruction at the hands of increasingly intense cyclones, I must oppose Abbot Point.

If I want to protect my community, built on the flood plain at the mouth of a mighty river, from the ravages of sea level rise, the storm surge, the intense cyclonic storms periodically breaking the crippling droughts, I must oppose Abbot Point.

If I want to look my four year old son in the eye, when he's a man, when he understands the choice we have been confronted with, I must oppose Abbott Point with every fibre of my being.

In 2014, in the rich, developed country of Australia, we face a stark choice. This is our defining moment.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Carbon Tax Battle

With a week to go in the Federal election it seems mostly done and dusted. The Mad Monk has his nose in front. Swinging voters are unimpressed with their choice of PM and are picking the "lesser of two weevils".

Throughout the campaign Labor has sought to hide from the Carbon Tax. And every day in every way it's all the Coalition talk about.

It's the swampy ground in the battlefield. The Coalition stands on the high ground thrusting its spears and swords at Labor, pushing them back down the hill towards the swamp. Tony's war machine flush with the funding of the Mining Baronesses and Barons is relentless. Rupert Murdoch sits at the very top of the hill, hurling his grenades at the hapless Labor ranks below.

Labor, for its part, dare not set foot in the swamp. It tried filling the edge of the swamp, changing from a fixed to floating price just before the election. We abolished the swamp they said. But Tony knew it was still there. His language and his attack never changed.

So Labor stands its ground, pushed against the edge of the swamp. It fights on trust. Says you can't trust Tony. Tony smiles, looks directly at the camera, says "Trust me. You know you can't trust them. Just look at... Carbon Tax."

A skirmish erupts over Paid Parental Leave. Welfare for the rich, with a reverse means test. The richer you are, the more you get. Easy target says Labor, let's attack. Again Tony smiles. "Now everyone thinks I have policies" he says to his nervous lieutenants. At least they're not looking under the fig leaf where we've hidden Direct Action. To the camera he says, "it's cheaper than the the Carbon Tax".

And so on it goes. Labor surrounded on all fronts, it's back to the swamp. The grenades and spear thrusts gradually wearing them down. The end will come soon enough. Tony will be King.

Unless someone in Labor stops fighting for a second and takes a good look at the swamp. "Hey, Comrades there's some firmer ground in there. Look, emissions are down, that's looking solid. How many $ Billion is Tony giving to the rapacious, largely overseas owned energy and mining companies. Tony's plan is not only a $10 billion plus tax cut to some of the biggest polluting corporations on the planet, he then chucks another few billion at them as 'incentives". Is this not the single largest ever gift given to a group of people, most of the populous think should be paying more tax? A vague, shifting path appears amongst the reeds.

A minion rushes up to PM Rudd on the front line, he waits. He is amazed as Kevin simultaneously juggles a phone line to the UN, his dagger (a short blade to pry loose detail), his NBN Sword, his Spear of Economic Success, his beautiful bejeweled Schools Mace, all twirling in a dazzling spectacle largely unwitnessed by the population. The waiting media usually only filming when he stops to mop his brow and give his fringe a flick. At one such moment the minion steps forward, bows and hands him a note from a trusted friend.

"It is time my friend. We must enter the swamp and lure him there. We cannot win on any other battleground." Kevin doesn't like the swamp. The night of the long knives was because of the swamp.

But as he looks up the hill, sees Murdoch directly the artillery, Tony confidently cycling back and forth between his troops, he realises Tony actually doesn't like the swamp either. He shouts about it. He points his finger and complains of the smell. But he never enters.

Tony's great skill is to attack his opponents on his own weak points. If he's been caught lying, he will talk about nothing else other than the PM's lies for a week. Projection, triangulation, call it what you will, but it has been very effective.

His most effective attack on Labor over a long period has been the Carbon Tax. A campaign of extremist lies and scare. During this election campaign Labor has tried to hide from it.

This election keeps being compared to 1993. Where a large target Hewson, was worn down by Keating. This is not that election.

Look instead at Howard, having introduced the unpopular GST, he had to stand by it. So the election became a referendum on the GST. He won. How? By convincing enough people that it was a necessary reform and it was working.

The impact of climate change on this country will be devastating. Let's talk about wiping towns off the map. My town, Ballina, will cease to exist in its present form if the globe warms 2c. There'll be something left, but the main part of town will be under water. The cane fields on the flood plain will be gone. Further west, towns will die from lack of water.

The greatest risk of a leg of lamb costing $100, is when we've stuffed agriculture from a changing and much drier climate, not a tax on corporations that at its worst adds 9% to electricity bills.

It's time to attack Tony's strength, The Carbon Tax, to enter the swamp that prevents an orderly retreat for Labor and instead leads to slaughter.

Kevin gathers his most trusted lieutenants, "I know it's not popular, I know we've copped a pasting on this so far, but we're gonna have to own up. We introduced the Carbon Tax/ Price/ Pollution Charge/ Tip Fee. But we did it for a good reason. It's working. It will make a difference for our children and grand children. Now is not the time to turn our back on their future."

This election has always been about the Carbon Tax. The main political battleground for the past 6 years will not go away.

He can't pretend any longer. Kevin turns his attention away from his opponent. "Bring me some torches" he calls to the Campaign Team, "Let's shine some light on this path." And with this Kevin turns and leads his troops into the swamp

One week in the swamp is all he needs.

One week in the swamp is all he's got.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Fluoride and Consenting Adults

As newly elected Councillor for Ballina Shire, my phone doesn't usually run that hot. Normally I can drop my little man at day care and get to work without too many interruptions. Not any more.

It is only a couple of days since I poked my head up and expressed an opinion on fluoridating the Ballina water supply. I knew this was a hot button issue from the number of questions on fluoridation I recieved during the election, but I have been surprised at the ferocity of the attacks on my judgement and my scientific understanding.

If I was advocating that fluoride be added, I'm sure I would have copped a bucket load of criticism from the anti-fluoride brigade. To say these people feel passionately about fluoride is about as understated as you can get. I mean, I've spoken against fluoridation and I've still had calls from fluoridation opponents at 6am. Big hint to all concerned here: don't ring at that time if you want me (or anyone else) to listen to your point of view.

But no, the attacks on my scientific knowledge, intelligence and judgement have come from health professionals and politicians. I'm eithern ignorant of the facts, playing populist politics or have been captured by a vocal minority. I believe none of these is true.

I first studied biomedical science and ethics as part of a Bachelor of Science completed in 1990, with majors in natural resource economics and science and environment policy. From 1995 to 2000, I was Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of Qld and a member of the West Moreton Health District Ethics Committee.

A large part of my work was contributing to a complete re-write of Queensland legislation that dealt with consent to medical treatment, namely The Power of Attorney Act 1998, the Guardianship Act 1999 and the Mental Health Act 2000. In addition to a range of other improvements, for the first time, a person that experienced episodic mental illness gained a legal means to refuse Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), through an Advanced Health Directive developed in conjunction with their Doctor.

Now I agree it's a big jump from ECT to fluoridating the water supply, but the issues of consent and the right to withhold consent to treatment are central to both.

It's probably more than a coincidence that both also gained popularity around the same time, the 1950's & 60's, when our State Institutions swelled with unmarried mothers and homosexuals in need of 'psychiatric' treatment. I dare say that the standards of consent to treatment were substantially less than we would find acceptable today.

So the first question to answer is whether adding fluoride to the water supply constitutes medical treatment.

The Therapeutic Goods Act says this depends on whether the addition of Fluoride is for therapeutic purposes or simply one of the chemicals (eg. Chlorine) used to ensure clean water. Given that the sole reason advanced for the addition of Fluoride is the prevention of caries, this is clearly treatment. That it is a preventative action makes no difference, if you add something to the water supply to achieve a therapeutic outcome it constitutes medical treatment.

I agree with all the scientific evidence presented by NSW Health and the Australian Dental Association, fluoridation of the water supply has substantial oral health benefits. I'd also agree that there is a very low risk of side effects from such low levels of Fluoride, but I cannot accept that there is no risk.

There is a body of peer reviewed and corroborating evidence published by The Harvard School of Public Health in July 2012 that high levels of Fluoride in the water can result in impaired intellectual development in young children. There is no data that corroborates such a finding in regard to low fluoride levels, but the study was unable to establish a minimum threshold. It gives lie to the suggestion that there is no risk.

While the people who believe that fluoride is a toxic poison or that they have a personal susceptibility may be a little fervent in their beliefs and over zealous in their methods, they, for all other purposes, are sane. They cannot be ignored. They have a right to object to treatment without consent.

In my view, without that consent, local authorities cannot proceed with fluoridation. Even if two thirds of the local population want fluoridation, you cannot interfere with the water supply to achieve a therapeutic goal without the consent of the other one third.

I would also note that there has been some medical professionals linking opposition to fluoridation to an anti-vaccination stance. They are wrong. As the father of a young child, I strongly encourage following the approved vaccination program and wish there was a far higher vaccination rate in this area.

As in the case of fluoridation, I urge everyone to accept the science. I believe however that there is a substantial difference between supporting an active vaccination program and seeking to inoculate an entire population through the water supply.

It must also be understood by the community that in the case of vaccines, there is no effective alternative treatment.

If your baby gets sick from Whooping Cough, s/he may die. By not immunizing your child, you increase the risk not only for your child, but also for my child. I'm not impressed.

In the case of fluoridation, there are a range of other, less intrusive options, to achieve these same health outcomes.

If fluoridation of the water supply is a medical treatment then any consumer of that supply has the right to withhold consent to that treatment.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

How did the media get it so wrong?

It's not often I feel compelled to write on this blog, but the media reporting of the Gillard, Abbott, Slipper thing yesterday has made me angry. Well more angry than usual at least. Why?

It's not like I want to defend Slipper. He's always seemed a bit weird to me. But the double standards, the failure to understand principle and the absolute rewriting of history is breath taking.

I'm not going to summarise the trash written yesterday, but here's my response to a few things the collective missed.

There is no credible argument that this was raised by Abbott on Tuesday as a matter of principle. This was quite plainly a Parliamentary tactic to wedge the PM.

Many stories mentioned how the Gov has relied on the vote (or non vote) of Slipper over the past few months. Not one mentioned that the Opposition is clearly just as desperate for the numbers and has demonstrated that it will do whatever it takes to bring the Gov down.

The offence
Out of 200 pages of private text messages tabled in the Federal Court last week (I haven't read them), the media highlighted two that were a bit dodgy. Calling Sofie Mirabella a botch and describing a vagina as like a mussel.

The botch text is explained, without ANY evidence, as he must have meant bitch. BULLSHIT (I meant to say that).

I have tried every brand of device in my house and none auto-correct bitch to botch or the reverse. I'm sure he did mean bitch and most likely just miss-spelt it, but it is equally plausible that he just couldn't bring himself to use the real word and so substituted a letter to soften it. You'd have to ask him directly. Not one of the journalists or the Parliament have.

The mussel comment is bawdy for sure and may be offensive to some but when sent as a text to a male friend, who was not an employee at the time, cannot be used as a legitimate excuse to sack someone.

Would ANY of the journalists writing yesterday accept this as a reason for their summary dismissal. I don't believe so.

The Principles
The texts were published as part of a Federal Court case in which a Judge is currently deciding whether civil legal action for Sexual Harassment brought by Mr Ashby is an abuse of process. Mr Slipper alleging that it's part of a Coalition political campaign. Is this not just a little bit relevant to describing what happened on Tuesday? You'd think so.

The motion proposed by the Coalition called for the immediate dismissal from office of the Speaker. No referral to a committee. No demand the Speaker address Parliament. No opportunity for the Speaker to defend himself AT ALL.

And no consideration of the impact such an action may have on the Federal Court.

In fact, it sought to do something which has not occurred in our Parliament in its 100+ history.

On the basis of what? Two text messages?

Yet some 'professional' journalist will insist on telling me that the PM's failure to support such a motion shows a lack of principle.

Un. Believe. Able.

I will not dwell on the media descriptions of the PM's speech itself. I have no doubt that the speech is already the most watched 15mins of Parliament in our nations history. That doesn't happen by accident.

I count myself fortunate that I watched it live. I don't normally watch QT, but I'll keep an eye on twitter to see if anything interesting crops up.

On Tuesday afternoon a tweet appeared. "Abbott just said 'died of shame' #qt"

He couldn't have, I said to myself as I raced to the nearest TV. Yes, he did came the unending stream from twitter.

Given the unprecedented response to Alan Jones use of that phrase in reference to the recent passing of the PM's father, I was just gob smacked that Abbott had dared utter it again.

I'm still gob smacked, but now I also wonder why that wasn't splashed across every front page on Wednesday?

Was the PM's reply a cold, calculated, unprincipled response as it has been painted by some? Not bloody likely. Did they see how truly angry she was? That this man, Abbott, had dared utter those words, to her face.

Abbott got both barrels and deserved every minute of it.

I don't pretend to know how this will play out politically. Will polls go up or down? At the moment I don't care. I'm too bloody angry.

Australia's media let us down badly yesterday, even many writers I usually enjoy, seemed captivated by the spin.

I hope they read this.

I hope they reflect.

I hope they stop writing crap.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Limit Pokies Damage

I don't hate pokies. I just don't see the point. If I wanted to sit in a room while everyone stared intently at a screen not talking to each other, I could just stay in the lounge room with my family and our collection of iPhones, laptops and TV.

Why focus on poker machines? Surely a few pokies down the local club isn't a big deal. They're not. But pokies rake in $12 Billion a year in Australia, more than all other forms of gambling combined.

It wasn't quite so bad before we lifted the limits in the 1990's. Now its more machines, bigger jackpots and combination bets of up to $30 a spin, allowing a player to lose a staggering $1,200 an hour.

Mr Wilkie has provided the opportunity, now we need a campaign strategy to take on the Clubs industry.

Let's not underestimate the influence of the clubs. They're pouring millions into their campaign to minimise any changes, including electoral campaigns against sitting federal members they think are vulnerable. We need a counter campaign. Not in Canberra, but out in Clubland, where we can show local Federal Members that this is a fight worth having.

So, if we think counter-campaign, what are the clubs doing that's working for them?

Licence to Punt
When I first saw the banners, posters, leaflets and letters to club members declaring that 'No-one Voted for a Licence to Punt' I thought it was dumb. Its a big fat lie. Requiring a playing card to operate machines with a betting limit over a $1 per spin isn't such a big deal. But it is a very effective rallying cry. It also feeds into Tony Abbott's story that this Government is not legit.

Mandatory Pre Commitment is not a concept that voters are warming to. As soon as many people see the word mandatory they turn off and don't bother listening to the concept. Clubs calling it a 'Licence to Punt' is smart work, dishonest, but smart work nonetheless.

They are also running the 'big brother' scare campaign as I discovered at the Ballina RSL AGM, “There will have to be a national database, the Government is going to know where, when, and how much you bet”.

I think it's time we stopped trying to sell it.

The current version of MPC for bets over $1 is actually a compromise position. It lets Clubs keep the high intensity machines, but seeks to control total spend. Its a good, workable system, but if the Federal Coalition continues to play its spoiling role, then its passage through Parliament is less than assured.

The case for the $1 maximum bet is a much easier sell.

No cards, no licence, no database. By dropping MPC the Clubs 'Licence to Punt' campaign is dead.

The $1 maximum will achieve many of the same benefits as MPC. In Federal Parliament, the Independent Tony Windsor and the Greens back the $1 maximum bet. Their votes will be needed in the House of Reps for any reform to pass.

Clubs will continue to scream blue murder, predicting massive losses, but they will do that anyway and the public actually expects them to. It doesn't cut through the same.

It's Un-Australian
When the Clubs started using 'It's Un-Australian', that's when I got angry. Pokies are not some sort of proud Australian tradition, they are the recent product of a giant experiment conducted in the 1990's, with all of us as the guinea pigs.

I grew up in Qld where pokies were illegal. I remember going to Tweed Heads just after my eighteenth birthday with a few mates to give it a try. It was the legalisation of pokies in Qld that caused my family problems. Up to that point, a night of losses on the pokies was a rare event, when travelling. As soon as they became legal in Qld and started to appear in just about every local club, then there was nowhere safe for my addicted brother-in-law and things went downhill from there.

The Clubs are also feeding off the tobacco companies and their 'Nanny State' campaign. Why wouldn't two blood sucking leaches cooperate to keep their victims passive and easy prey.

Obviously many Aussies like a bet. The slogan 'Licence to Punt' used with 'It's Un-Australian' is meant to appeal to that broader group and paints anybody who supports control of pokies as a kill joy.

Again, dropping MPC and advocating the $1 max bet kills the 'Licence to Punt' campaign and also damages 'It's Un-Australian'.

The community will suffer
The sheer size and spectacular growth of the industry, the damage it does to communities, families and individuals are all good reason to intervene. The 1.5% of revenue that clubs are required to donate back to the community is a pitiful recompense for the damage pokies cause.

But that support of community is another PR winner for the Clubs. Trot out pictures of kids playing junior football or a bus helping the elderly and you'd have to be a heartless bastard to take their funding away.

Despite my clash with the local RSL I see the support they provide to a wide range of returned services groups and I do not want to damage that. That's the people the club actually exists for. The pokies are the means to the end.

We need a 'Community Guarantee', a grants program specifically for Clubs to enable them to maintain their support of community activities in the event of a decrease in their revenue.

A government funded Community Guarantee would ease the transition while Clubs adjust their business model to focus on activities other than pokies. It could be complemented by a business development program to assist smaller regional Clubs develop alternative revenue sources.

Even if we use the Club's over-inflated 40% loss of revenue projection, the cost to the Federal Budget to guarantee community funding would be in the order of $72 million pa. This is in the realm of possibility given that the Club is only the conduit for money going to worthwhile, grass roots community organisations, it ensures stability for valued groups such as Returned Servicemen and it completely negates 'the footy team will die' argument.

Job Losses
Pokies also damage communities, sucking expenditure from other forms of entertainment that provide far more jobs per dollar spent. The accepted employment multiplier for service industries is 6.5, for pokies it's just 3.5.

In my home town, the $10 million taken by pokies at the RSL means $30 million of jobs aren't created. That's 500 people unemployed because of pokies, in a town of 40,000 people that desperately needs jobs. Even a 10% decrease in money spent on pokies at the RSL, if spent on something else, would create another 50 jobs.

For those in NSW it's worth noting that we are home to 10% of the world's pokies, and the $6 billion a year taken by pokies means that about 300,000 jobs have been lost.

We have a serious addiction problem and we're not talking about the players. Clubs have become dependant on this cash stream of human misery and the States are no better, reliant on taxes from pokies as a major source of revenue. Neither will do anything to stem that flow unless forced to do so.

It's why the Federal Government needs to act. To regulate an industry that has spun out of control in the last two decades. It makes good policy sense in addition to being a political imperative imposed by Mr Wilkie.

And if Mr Wilkie, Senator Xenophon and the Government are willing, it can also be made into a political winner.

  • $1 maximum bets (No MPC/No Licence to Punt)
  • Community Guarantee Fund
  • Create jobs

I'm calling this campaign 'Limit Pokies Damage'

I don't have millions of dollars to get this out there. Please support and share.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Me at the RSL AGM

So off I head to the AGM of the Ballina RSL on a beautiful Sunday morning. What's the worst that could happen, I say to myself... A tar and feathering, personal abuse, nothing more sinister than that. I hope. The beach looked gorgeous, why wasn't I going there?

Stephen Mayne goes to AGM's all the time knowing he will be an uncomfortable, unwelcome presence. But he still goes. I can do no less. It's a promise I made to myself earlier this year. I would not stand by and let this deceitful campaign enable clubs to continue to hurt people without being brought to account for the harm they cause. I couldn't help my Nephews when their Dad stole from them to feed his pokie adiction, but I won't stay silent any longer.

Maybe it wasn't such a great idea to get a Letter to the Editor in the paper this week, calling on RSL members to join me at the AGM. I didn't really slip them a note to announce my intentions, I kind of slapped them on the forehead with it.

So I walk in with few minutes to spare. There's about 50 people there. The only people anywhere near my age (46) are the staff. No one says hi. They know who I am. My resemblance to dogs balls is uncanny. The only time I've felt this out of place before was as the only bloke attending a Domestic Violence Conference years ago.

The Chair opens the meeting and makes clear that all motions require 28 days notice, so none will be considered from the floor. A person may only speak once in each debate. OK, that’s the ground rules. No point in motions, I wouldn't get a seconder in this room anyway.

We stop then for a minutes silence to remember the 3 diggers that lost their lives in Afghanistan overnight. “Lest we forget”, said with vigour.

The Chair gives his report. Talks about the pressures on the clubs finances. I ask my first question. Could you please enlighten the meeting about the extent of community support provided by the club? I can find $173,000 in donation in the Financial Report, but surely there was more than that? Oh yes, says the Chair. The figure is about $300,000 when we include the free use of facilities provided by the club. They must do lovely morning teas.

So on gaming revenues of $10million they donated slightly more than the minimum 1.5% required by their Licence.

Oh and don't forget we built a boardwalk over the river bank outside the club. We spent $600,000 on that and have now given it to the community. I keep my mouth shut. No point in saying that the Council forced the Club to do that as it had unlawfully built to the edge of the river and closed off public access.

So on to the General Manager's Report. Outlines major sources of income (60% pokies) and expenditure. Electricity and gas prices are up. These will go up further due to the Government's Carbon Tax. Murmurs from the crowd. Damn Govmint!

Total turnover $18million. $750,000 in retained earnings and $173,000 to the community. Yes, we can see the pattern.

And then we get to the devastating impact of pokie reforms. GM proud to be part of Clubs Australia campaign. GM predicts $3million cost to implement and $4million loss of revenue per annum. I ask how the GM derived those figures. A 40% reduction in gaming just because people have to use a card? Ridiculous I said.

Chair intervenes to tell the meeting that the introduction of Mandatory Pre commitment (MPC) will require everyone to use a card. This card will be linked to a National Database. So the government will know exactly where and what you bet on pokies. Outrageous says a bloke behind me. Chair asks the meeting how many people will continue to bet on pokies. Everyone says no way, we won't play. There you go says the Chair, a 40% reduction easily.

At this point a guy in front of me, part of a row of 7 guys wearing their shirts from the Billiards and Snooker Club (supported by the RSL) moves a procedural motion that I no longer be heard. “You said a person can only speak once, Mr Chair”. The Chair overrules the motion. “He is asking questions of reports, not debating”. He and I know its my only chance. I get up again to ask how many of the clubs machines have a greater than $1 betting limit. GM says “All of 'em, you can bet as much or as little as you like. Don't you play the machines here, Sir?” Not my thing I say.

Its clear that was my last question. I have declared myself a non punter. Obviously a crackpot. No, I'd rather spend the little money I do make on my family thanks.

Meeting continues, nothing for me to add, I sit in respectful silence. Kinda.

Meeting concludes and the Chair invites people to stay for a beer and some morning tea. He makes a point of asking me to stay for a beer with him heard by the whole meeting. I say yes, we get our beers and off to a remote corner of the room for 'a chat'.

The chat consists entirely of him telling me how I have got the wrong end of the stick and how this will do so much damage to the club. I point out that it would be less damage than was done to my family through pokie addiction. We have an existing voluntary pre commitment scheme, he tells me. 30 people on the list. I ask does it work. He says he doesn't know details so can't comment.

We go back to the National Database issue. I tell him its a crock, you're just making it up to scare people. Its not in the Productivity Commission Report. Calls me ignorant and a fool. Starting to get a little heated.

Then he says you're involved in ASR aren't you. I said yes, but there was no connection with my stance on pokies. “Well you were happy enough to take our money”. I say I have no problem with the Club, but I don't think we should be taking money away from families in desperate situations. He just stares at me, “but you'll take our money”. I nod, he keeps staring at me. We both know what is happening. No chance of any more funding from the RSL if I don't shut my mouth. Sorry guys.

I go to walk away. I stop, turn and thank him for enabling me to ask questions. Being civil. He shouts at me, so the whole room can hear. “Well, you are ignorant and a fool”. I leave.

In that moment when he tried to stare me down, we both knew. I am his enemy and he is mine.