14 September 2020

Clubs say Greens' pokies plan treats "Canberrans like they're children"

| Michael Weaver
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Anthony Hill

“This proposal is treating Canberrans like they’re children,” says CEO of Vikings Group Anthony Hill. Photo: Supplied.

An ACT Greens plan to provide incentives for a network of pokie-free clubs around Canberra has the potential to wipe out community clubs and treats Canberrans like children, according to two people at the forefront of the industry in the ACT.

Greens leader Shane Rattenbury and their gaming-harm spokesperson Rebecca Vassarotti said their as yet uncosted plan offers a range of supports to enable clubs to increase their links with the community by encouraging more clubs to become pokie-free.

However, Vikings Group CEO Anthony Hill and ClubsACT CEO Gwyn Rees both told Region Media the Greens’ proposal is harmful to an industry that has had to rely on diversification measures and JobKeeper payments to keep their doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Greens’ policy, announced on Thursday (10 September), seeks to further reduce clubs’ reliance on the “rivers of gold” from poker machines as a source of revenue while also reducing the risk of problem gambling throughout many suburban community clubs.

READ ALSO OPINION – If we can’t blow up the pokies, at least limit the damage

The measures in the policy include subsidies for clubs to be leased to community organisations, upgrades to kitchens and better acoustics to enable more live music in the clubs.

Mr Rattenbury said their plan would also bring the number of poker machines down to 3000, from a commitment of 4000 during the 2016 term of government.

“The Greens want our community clubs to not only survive, but thrive. Relying on problem gamblers to gamble away their livelihoods is a broken business model and just not sustainable,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“While the COVID-19 pokies switch-off was a welcome relief for people experiencing gambling harm, it also caused significant financial hardship to many clubs. This is a moment for us to decide what is important about our community clubs.”

Kate Seselja, Shane Rattenbury and Rebecca Vassarotti

Advocate against poker machines and former problem gambler Kate Seselja (left), Shane Rattenbury and Rebecca Vassarotti. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

Vikings Clubs CEO Anthony Hill said the COVID-19 restrictions only moved the problem to online gambling, where a number of studies have found a dramatic increase in online gambling.

“We saw online gaming increase during COVID and we also saw people go across the border to NSW. Two myths the Greens kept denying were proven,” Mr Hill said.

“The prohibition of poker machines doesn’t work and this proposal is treating Canberrans like they’re children.”

Mr Hill also said there has been minimal consultation over the proposal and the Vikings’ 51 affiliated clubs in Canberra have already had to dip into a diversification fund that was established about 15 years ago to reduce their reliance on income from poker machine revenue.

During that time, more than 15 clubs have closed, along with five during the current parliamentary term.

READ ALSO: Assembly rejects Greens’ bid to reduce poker machine harm

ClubsACT CEO Gwyn Rees said clubs have worked hard to diversify their businesses and reach the goal set of fewer than 15 machines per 1000 people.

“ACT clubs thought they had done the heavy lifting expected of them this political term, but it seems every time we reach the top of the mountain, the Greens roll the boulder back down,” Mr Rees said.

“Yet, this plan, particularly on the back of the hardships caused by COVID, will drive many clubs to bankruptcy and will certainly impact on their ability to provide free, subsidised and financial support to local sporting and community organisations.

“It will cost many hundreds of jobs, particularly for young people who make up our club sector. It will cost even more jobs along our supply chain.

“If Minister Rattenbury truly believes there is a river of gold, I would suggest it will be flowing through Queanbeyan.”

Mr Rees also said an Australian National University report to the ACT Government on how clubs were surviving in Western Australia without poker machines had not been tabled because it did not contain favourable information.

However, the Greens’ gaming-harm spokesperson Rebecca Vassarotti said the community expects action to reduce the level of gambling harm in the community.

“We want Canberrans to enjoy more clubs with no pokies. Our comprehensive package means working with our local community to make our local clubs a safer, more connected place for everyone to enjoy – a place where kids can play, families and friends can get together, without the presence of pokies,” Ms Vassarotti said.

An ACT Labor spokesperson said their offer to compensate venues for surrendering poker machines would stand if re-elected, while many venues had already lowered the number of poker machines.

The Canberra Liberals said the Greens’ proposal would be the “death-knell for many community clubs”.

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The Greens’ gambling policy will *not* lead to a Canberra without pokies. The sky will not fall in. Hopefully we may end up with fewer of the blessed things, and perhaps some other changes to reduce gambling-related harm, to boot.

It’s disingenuous for advocates for “community” clubs / gambling venues to talk about all the great activities they support and how the sky would fall in otherwise. There’s no magic pudding, no free money. It’s just a cash transfer of (some of the) gambling revenue, much of which comes from problem gamblers, to various other things.

I don’t know what the ANU report says, but I can say from visiting WA enough over the years, and having family there, that kids still play sport, fishing clubs somehow exist, and community groups can access meeting rooms, all without being funded by pokie revenue.

If Canberra’s nanny state remove all the pokies then problem gamblers will go online where all the profits go to the multi-national companies off shore. At least if they play and lose on the pokies here in the ACT, then some of the money goes back into the community and to programs for problem gamblers.

I remember being 20 years old, way back in 2003.

Back in those halcyon days, I would go to the Southern Cross Club with no more than $30 to my name; that would buy me six full strength beers, a plate of chips and gravy (which could always be supplemented by the abundant finger foods the club used to serve), half a packet of cigarettes (as long as I went in with someone else) and still have change to catch the bus home at 2300.

I miss those days.

You really have to wonder how these clubs CEOs sleep at night. Just look at their arguments in support of pokes:
– clubs will die without them. Well, if pokies are all they have to offer then maybe they’re not worth saving. Perhaps they should be asking how to make them more attractive to people other than those pouring coins into a pit.
– treats Canberrans like children. Yeah, the old “they want to take away your right to gamble” fearmongering. As if there isn’t a whole raft of regulations in our society already to help control destructive behaviour, because we understand that sometimes people need to be saved from themselves. Anyone who pretends that problem gambling and pokies aren’t joined at the hip lives in Trumpian “alternate facts” land.
– people are going to gamble away their money anyway, so they might as well gamble it away with us. I think this one is the most galling of all.

“Well, if pokies are all they have to offer then maybe they’re not worth saving.”

Except for the mountains of money they pour into community groups and sports that is.

“As if there isn’t a whole raft of regulations in our society already to help control destructive behaviour,”

Exactly. There is already a mountain of regulations and services to help stop problem gamblers, we don’t need more. If people don’t want to avail themselves of the myriad avenues available, why should you restrict other people’s freedoms further.

“– people are going to gamble away their money anyway, so they might as well gamble it away with us”

As the COVID restrictions showed perfectly with millions of dollars flowing to Queanbeyan and surrounding areas of NSW.

People should have the freedom to choose what they want to do with their own money. You dont have to like their choices but it’s up to each individual to make them, not the nanny state.

Gambling machines cost families their incomes, and people their lives.

People whose first concern about pokies is “but my income” need to consider whether they’re happy with their livelihood being dependent on exploiting problem gamblers.

Keeping your fences painted and your playing fields green is costing people their lives.

“People whose first concern about pokies is “but my income” need to consider whether they’re happy with their livelihood being dependent on exploiting problem gamblers.” Read the replies. Yes, they are. Quite comfortable in taking that morally bankrupt position.

3,000 poker machines is still a lot of machines for a city the size of Canberra. And we all know clubs truly have little willingness to diversify their incomes unless forced to do so – that is a given. Easy cash is easy cash after all – even if it needs them to turn the odd blind eye to people whose lives are being destroyed in the process.

And for all this talk of diversification – how come it seems so difficult to demonstrate successful cases of it? There are a couple of clubs that have got out of pokies that are going along okay, but very little progress appears to have been made by any large clubs of note in this town. Even when being offered money for something they got for free (Gaming machine licenses) they still aren’t interested in genuine reform to their business model.

It all just seems like a giant charade.

None of that is to say I’m convinced at all by the greens policy. But I’d be happy enough to see an ongoing gradual reduction in the number of machines – we all know the squealing that happens when rent-seekers see their bounties taken away. But the fact is, plenty of clubs still have a vast excess of machines compared to how many they actually need to ‘service’ their clientele, if you can call it that.

The reduction in machine numbers should be accompanied with a gradual shift away of the funding model from clubs and towards government – getting it to fund more of what it should. Funding of community sports teams (not the semi-pro elements) and community organisations should be a core function of government, not outsourced to a sector living in part off ruining the lives of people.

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