always backing the house ....
The gambling industry has emerged from an era of failed reforms with campaigners on the payroll, politicians in its pocket, and four new casinos in the offing …
Campbell Newman’s recent announcement to offer up to three new casino licences in Queensland signals that Australia’s second great gambling boom has begun.
The Queensland premier’s decision to offer the new licences, to kick-start what he called a “faded and jaded” state tourism industry, brings the total number of new casinos announced in Australia in 2013 to four – including James Packer’s bid for a second Sydney casino which was given the green light in July.
A $350 million revamp of Adelaide Casino was also okayed last month. Together, these developments mark a resumed embrace between Australian governments and the casino-building business – some 17 years since the last licence was granted, to the Reef Hotel Casino in Cairns.
Chairman of the Australian Churches’ Gambling Taskforce, Reverend Tim Costello, says the industry is enjoying the spoils of its victorious campaign, waged during the previous government’s term, against the muscular restrictions on poker machines championed by independent MP Andrew Wilkie.
“It was a show of strength,” Costello says. “And [Prime Minister Tony] Abbott said, ‘Look at that power! That’s [Labor’s] problem, we’re not going to do any reform here.’”
But Costello believes anti-gambling sentiment among the community hasn’t completely subsided. “It waxes and wanes,” he says, “but I think the same concerns, that gambling is washing over this nation and out of control, are there.
“I think it’s just been focused elsewhere. The public has been most outraged about sports betting interfering with their pleasures and shaping their kids’ views of their sporting heroes,” Costello says.
He’s referring to the ban on broadcasting live odds during sports telecasts, which was enacted in July this year, following sustained community anger.
Between 1985 and 1995, nine casino licences were granted in Australia, including to Melbourne’s Crown Casino and Sydney’s The Star. It was part of a decade-long easing in gambling regulations across Australia, which saw poker machine numbers quadruple, and “VIP Lounge” gaming rooms become a fixture in pubs and clubs.
That expansion was effectively halted by the Productivity Commission’s 1999 report into the gambling industry, which reported that some 300,000 Australians were suffering a severe-to-moderate gambling problem, and that national gambling losses had doubled. Australians currently lose the most money per capita to gambling of any country in the world.
Casino industry researcher and author Professor Linda Hancock says that during the 1990s casinos were seen as “the evil end of the [gambling] continuum”, associated with money laundering, intensive betting, and community harm. But she says in recent times these concerns have fallen away.
“To some extent [opposition to casinos] has been eclipsed by community disquiet about the proliferation of poker machines in clubs and hotels,” she says.
The announcement of a potential three new casinos met with little resistance in the Sunshine State, mired as it is in a state debt expected to peak at $83 billion in 2015-16. The Newman government has increasingly looked to gambling to help plug the gap.
Newman’s Liberal-National government’s 2012 budget presciently increased taxes on gaming machines and casinos. The state is also considering increasing the maximum bet permitted on a poker machine from $5 to $10, and permitting machines to accept $50 notes ($20 is the largest note allowed now).
And, although this past August saw a record amount of money put through the pokies in Queensland, Premier Newman has commissioned an expert panel to advise on how it could cut regulation, which the government says is ‘strangling’ the state’s gambling industry.
Costello says community groups - “under pressure and on a drip-feed to raise funds” - are reluctant to speak out against these developments, because of their reliance on local clubs and government grants for funding.
“What we’re lacking is an independent place to stand. The capture and co-option by gambling funds [of opposing forces] is simply the underbelly of this story,” he says.
“You can always find a community leader who shows some ambivalence, and then when you scratch beneath the surface, they’re receiving significant funding.”
One of the few community representatives on the Queensland government’s gambling red-tape reduction panel, Derek Tuffield, seems to embody this conflict.
Chief executive of the counselling organisation Lifeline, in the Darling Downs and South-West Queensland region, Tuffield is also a long-time leader of Queensland’s Gambling Help Network. Both organisations are reliant on government grants for the majority of their funding.
When contacted by The Global Mail for his reaction to the casino announcement, the senior social worker is equivocal.
“It’s a bit of a tricky one, I must admit,” he says. “There are both pluses and minuses.”
“The pluses are that three new casinos will mean there will be construction, there will be equipment sold, there will be employment opportunities.
“The other side of it [is that] there will be everyday people who, in most cases, will go there with the view that they will gamble,” he says.
Tuffield concedes that the new casinos will inevitably lead to more problem gamblers, but says this can be mitigated: “You’ve got to make sure … that you’ve got sufficient support services there to work with the casinos, and to work with the people who may develop gambling-related issues, to get counselling, to get support, to work with their families.”
His comments suggest that few, even within the state’s own gambling-help services, accept the Newman government’s claims that the casinos will be patronised mostly by wealthy Asian gamblers.
Tim Costello agrees: “The Productivity Commission has found that high rollers only count in casinos for 11 per cent [of revenue]. The rest comes from what they call ‘the grind’, in the industry. That’s locals playing pokies and card tables.”