11 June 2020

Pokies limits expose government rifts over club funding in the Canberra community

| Dominic Giannini
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The Greens want to impose a $5 bet limit and $100 maximum load for poker machines in the ACT. Photo: File.

The ACT Greens’ new pokie policy has exposed a rift between Labor and its junior coalition partner after Minister for Mental Health Shane Rattenbury said new gaming reforms must be implemented before clubs reopen.

He also took a swipe at the Labor Party’s historic connection with revenue generated by poker machines, attributing lethargic industry reform to the fact that the Labor Clubs have relied on gambling revenue. Last financial year, Labor Clubs took in around $25 million from gaming machines across its four venues.*

“There is a long history of Labor Clubs in the community,” Mr Rattenbury said. “[The clubs] started off for very different reasons. They started off as pubs for sporting groups, for ethnic groups, and in this case for the labour movement. But I think they have become so addicted to their poker machine revenue that the debate in the ACT has become distorted.”

The Greens’ suggestion of a $5 bet limit and $100 maximum load amount appears to be dead on arrival – at least until after this year’s election – after Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay said more consultation was needed with the industry to ensure the measures were successful.

“Although the concept of bet limits is not new, this particular proposal has only just been raised with the Government, having first heard about it late last night,” he said today (11 June).

“Whilst we have had success in implementing substantial reforms to our clubs, we were only successful due to the lengthy and diligent consultation that occurred with our clubs sector,” he said.

“The issue of bet limits is worthy of community discussion during the election period and, as a result, is highly likely to be the subject of consideration in the Legislative Assembly in the next parliamentary term.”

Mr Ramsay also pointed to the Government’s track record of reducing the number of pokies in the ACT, saying it has reduced the number of poker machine authorisations from 5000 down to 4000 since the last election.

But the Canberra Liberals have gone further, alleging that COVID-19 has given the Government an excuse to shut down sectors they don’t like.

“Rather than using the COVID-crisis as an opportunity to cast moral judgements that ultimately hurt jobs and local employers, the ACT Government should focus on rebuilding the local economy and getting 2,000 club staff back into work,” the Shadow Minister for Racing and Gaming, Mark Parton, said.

“[Chief Minister Andrew] Barr and Mr Rattenbury need to overcome their personal disdain for community clubs, all of their employees, and all of their members, and instead focus the government’s efforts on getting Canberrans back into jobs.”

However, Mr Rattenbury said that relying on revenue from problem gamblers was unsustainable and irresponsible for ACT clubs.

“I do not think that the clubs can rely on the money of problem gamblers as their lifeline. We want the clubs to be open again, they are an important social place for our community to come together,” he said. “But the clubs cannot be in a position where they are absolutely reliant on people with a gambling problem losing more money.

“We already have bet limits in the casino, this is not a foreign idea for the ACT. For too long in the ACT there has been a reluctance to intervene on poker machine harm in the city.”

The pandemic has provided the perfect opportunity to act while the public is used to a separation from poker machines, he said.

“The evidence is very clear that the break provides some people with the opportunity to reflect and decide whether they want to continue,” he said.

“We know that machines are designed to keep people at the machine, to lose track of time and to lose track of how much money has gone through.”

Kate Seselja

Kate Seselja (centre) says gaming machines and social venues should not be synonymous. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

It is a point that hit home to the founder of The Hope Project, and previous problem gambler, Kate Seselja.

“NSW is the pokie capital of the world so there were pokies in every social venue that I went to as an 18-year-old. That is where [my addiction] developed … [and] it continued until I almost took my life in 2012,” she said.

“It is such a massive issue in this country. Canberrans lose $500,000 a day on pokies. That is so unsustainable in our culture in such a small population.

“Had there been significant efforts to make machines safer it would have totally changed the trajectory of my life, and I know that that is the case for money people with lived experience.”

However, Mrs Seselja acknowledged that she was facing an uphill battle against entrenched attitudes towards pokies in clubs and a powerful industry lobby.

“It is so hard to make ground because the industry has such a stronghold,” she said.

“I am hoping that because we have had this break and communities have been able to live and exist without poker machines, there is a small window where people can imagine a better future.”

Mark Parton

Shadow Gaming and Racing Minister Mark Parton says the Government should not target industries they do not like. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

*edited to clarify Labor Club relationship

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