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.