Canberra’s move to reduce gambling harm is paying off

Rebecca Vassarotti MLA 20 February 2019 4

A pokies-free Canberra could soon be a possibility.

Canberra now has fewer pokies in venues across Canberra.

This week, the ACT Government announced that it has almost achieved its 20 per cent reduction target for poker machines in venues across the Territory. It’s an important step in reducing the harm caused by gambling products and will make a difference. However, it’s only the first step and more needs to be done to reduce harm across the community.

Gambling harm is something that has been troubling ACT residents for some time. There was plenty of discussion about gambling during the last Territory election in 2016. Following the ACT election, the parliamentary agreement contained a number of commitments to start addressing gambling harm. This included a commitment to reduce the number of poker machines from around 5000 to around 4000 – a 20 per cent reduction. A program of voluntary surrender was announced, with incentives built in to encourage clubs to participate in the scheme. This built on a trading scheme that had been introduced in 2015.

This initiative had significant support. In 2017 the Canberra Gambling Reform Alliance (CRGA) commissioned a community survey, which found that 61 per cent of the community supported a decrease in machines in the ACT, while 40 per cent of these respondents believed there needed to be a big decrease.

Since the introduction of the trading scheme in the ACT, there had not been a great deal of change until recently. The recent reduction in authorisations has been primarily due to the end of the voluntary surrender program. This program offered incentives to encourage clubs to surrender authorisations and ended on 30 January 2019. After that, the Government was going to be able to start compulsorily acquiring authorisations to meet the target.

With the deadline reached for the voluntary scheme, data released has shown a significant drop in the number of authorisations – almost 1000 from a peak of more than 5000. This means that the ACT Government has almost reached its target, with just 12 to go at the end of the voluntary program.

While this is good news, there hasn’t been a dramatic change in the number of poker machines coming off the floors of venues. This is because most of these authorisations were not being used, and were rather ‘zombie licenses’, not attached to actual machines. All told, this program has seen around 235 pokies being removed from the floors of venues. Given this, it’s a fairly a modest first step along the path to reducing access to products that we know can be harmful and are easily accessible across our suburbs and neighbourhoods.

This scheme has cost around $14 million, provided in both cash and other incentives, and has enabled clubs to make the move and divest their poker machines. One of the most positive results of the scheme is the decision of at least one club to completely remove poker machines from their venue. This means that Canberra residents now don’t have to choose between visiting their local club and avoiding the pokies. It mirrors decisions being made in other jurisdictions where increasingly venues are deciding to get rid of all their poker machines. In Victoria, clubs in Geelong and Collingwood have recently removed poker machines from venues. In fact, Geelong’s Boss said that “operating poker machines clashed “with our mission and our values”.

The industry should be recognised for its engagement in the program. The Government should be congratulated for almost reaching its target of reducing poker machines. We need to remember however that the job has just started. There is still much further to go to reduce gambling harm in our local community. CGRA is calling for a much more significant reduction of poker machines – halving the number from the 5000 figure reached in the mid-2010s. We need to shift access so that these products are not so easily accessible across our suburbs and neighbourhoods.

In addition to reducing the number of machines, CGRA is also calling on Government to better regulate these products that we know can cause harm. This includes introducing meaningful bet limits to reduce the amount of money that people can lose quickly.

I think the community expects the ACT to be a leader in gambling harm reduction rather than lagging behind many other jurisdictions as we do now. I think much more needs to be done to reduce gambling harm in Canberra. What do you think?

CGRA is an Alliance of community organisations and individuals who are actively calling for significant reform of gambling legislation to reduce gambling harm. Rebecca is a co-chair of the Alliance. She is a former member of the Gambling and Racing Commission Board and was an ACT Greens candidate in the 2016 Territory Election.

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4 Responses to Canberra’s move to reduce gambling harm is paying off
Rebecca Vassarotti Rebecca Vassarotti 3:12 pm 26 Feb 19

It is important to note that the link provided by the CEO of Clubs ACT in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the researcher who was commissioned by the Canberra Gambling Reform Alliance references reporting about a different researcher. Dr Livingston did participate in the court cases referenced by Mr Rees but did not appear as an independent expert.

Meanwhile, further information has been reported about the actual number of machines that have been removed from the floors of major gambling venues as a result of the scheme to surrender poker machine authorisations. It can be accessed here: This is further evidence that far fewer machines that have been removed from circulation than the 1000 authorisations that have been surrendered through the scheme.

Maelinar Maelinar 12:24 pm 21 Feb 19

Using Rebecca’s data (sorry I couldn’t be bothered downloading all those .pdf documents) here’s how to get your gamble on in the ACT 🙂

Rebecca Vassarotti Rebecca Vassarotti 11:12 am 21 Feb 19

In response to the comments from the CEO of Clubs ACT, I would note the table provided in the article provides details of the trends in the reduction of authorisations and licenses since the trading scheme began. These come directly from the Gambling and Racing Commission’s website, and a link is provided for those who wish to look at the statistics themselves.

My observation about the impact of actual machines off the floor reflects other commentary, including the Canberra Times who noted in their article this week that “On November 30 last year there were 4283 machines in operation across Canberra’s 44 venues, well below the 4982 authorisations owned by clubs”.

As declared at the end of this article, I am a member of the ACT Greens, one of the many organisations I am involved in the local community. Other members of the Alliance include the ACT Council of Social Service, Anglicare, Uniting, ACT Shelter, the Public Health Association of Australia (ACT Branch), the Hope Project as well as other individuals. It is a broad alliance of parties who are concerned about the impact of gambling harm on our community.

In order to ensure an evidence-based approach, the Alliance has commissioned peer-reviewed research undertaken by respected independent gambling researchers including Dr Charles Livingston, an Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University.

David Jackson David Jackson 8:34 am 21 Feb 19

It will make a huge difference, sorry can’t talk right now as my poker tournament is about to start on my phone

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