The prospect of pokies in the Canberra Casino moved a step closer last week with the tabling of a bill in the Legislative Assembly which set out the conditions under which the Government would allow pokies into the Casino.
Given strong community concern about the impact of gambling harm, it is important that any move to introduce pokies in the Casino does not increase the level of harm. There is no denying the Casino is a high-risk environment, and as such, we need to judge the current proposal against measures we know make a difference in reducing gambling harm in the community.
So, how does the current proposal stack up?
We know that reducing the number of pokies in the ACT will reduce harm. On face value, this proposal may contribute to this given that the Casino will be required to operate within the current trading scheme at a higher level than required by ACT clubs. The Casino will be required to surrender one in three licenses it purchases from clubs, meaning that there will be fewer machines in the ACT as a result of the transfers. In addition, there will be a need to purchase half of these from smaller clubs in an effort to see smaller venues have the opportunity to trade all their licenses (and become pokie free). This is good news given a concentration of poker machines in a smaller number of larger clubs is not necessarily a path to reduced gambling harm.
However, it is very troubling that in addition to the 200 pokies, the Casino will also be able to operate fully automated table games – casino style games without human interaction and with significant technological enhancements. There is little research about the impact of these new types of games but the way in which they have embraced technologies similar to pokies is enough to be worried about. Their similarity to pokies has been recognised in the need for these terminals to be required to operate within the scheme. We need to be vigilant that there is not a proliferation of these type of games in a way that undermines commitments to reduce the total numbers of pokies in the Territory.
In relation to stronger regulation of these harmful products, the introduction of mandatory pre-commitment is a very positive step. It’s tempered however by the proposal that bet limits on machines be set at $5 per spin. This flies in the face of the findings of the Productivity Commission who in 2010 found that limits at this level did little to protect problem gamblers, who were the ones most likely to be betting at a higher intensity. Mandatory pre-commitment without an effective bet limit is a bit like saying to drivers that because there are speed limits, you don’t need to wear a seatbelt. $1 bet limits were recommended by the Productivity Commission and this is the limit strongly supported by the community – as evidence in last month’s community attitudes survey that found that 78% of the Canberra community support $1 bets.
There are also some things missing from the current proposal. It says nothing about limiting access to cash within the Casino. Again, this is an important part of the mix. The current legislative proposal is also silent on the issue of community contributions, and what will be required of the Casino in relation to returning some of the profits of pokies gambling back to address the negative impacts of gambling in the community. It is vital that the Casino is required to contribute at the same level (or higher) than clubs. It is also critical that an independent body is administering these funds to ensure community confidence in the regulatory regime. We need also to see an evaluation of the impact of pokies in the Casino over time to ensure we are not increasing the level of harm.
In summary, the proposal has quite a way to go before we can be confident it will not deliver worse social outcomes. With such a large shift in our gaming environment, this is the once in a generation chance the Canberra community has to ensure that harm is reduced rather than increased. It is positive that the Government has signaled a willingness to discuss issues such as the bet limits and it will be important that there are strong community voices contributing to this discussion.
I don’t think the proposal for pokies in the Casino should go ahead unless there are much stronger regulations including $1 bet limits, restrictions to access to cash and obligations around community contributions flowing from the profits of these machines. What do you think?
Rebecca Vassarotti is the co-chair of the Canberra Gambling Reform Alliance and is a former board member of the ACT Gambling and Racing Commission. She is a member of the ACT Greens and ran as a candidate in the recent ACT Territory Election