Thursday 27th of November 2014

always backing the house ....

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.

$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.”

Australia's Next Big Gambling Break

 

the new morality ....

Church groups and crossbench parliamentarians have accused Australia’s major parties of walking away from poker machine reforms because of industry pressure.

The chair of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, Tim Costello, went as far as saying it was no good for politicians to praise Nelson Mandela’s moral leadership “when on such morally clear issues of leadership [they] fail”.

Legislation proposed by the Abbott government would abolish the National Gambling Regulator, the automatic teller machine withdrawal limit, supervisory and gaming machine regulation levies, dynamic warning provisions and the trial on mandatory pre-commitment technology.

The minister for social services, Kevin Andrews, has described the changes as the “first step in reducing bureaucracy and the duplication of functions between the Australian government and the state and territory governments in this important area”.

But four crossbench parliamentarians fronted the media on Monday, alongside Costello and Salvation Army, Uniting Care and Catholic Social Services representatives, to denounce the planned changes. Labor – which could scuttle the changes if it voted with the Greens in the Senate – said it was still considering its position.

The Greens’ spokesman on gambling, Richard Di Natale, said the groups were putting on a united front to speak up for some of the most vulnerable people in the community.

Di Natale urged the Labor opposition not to turn its back on the community simply because the industry was running a campaign against some members.

“Please, please stand for something. Show some courage,” he said. “It’s important legislation; it was very hard fought, it was weaker than what all of us here would have liked but it was something, finally having the Australian government in the space of regulating poker machines which do so much damage to our community.”

The Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie chided parliamentary colleagues who said the Lord’s Prayer and spoke about compassion and values, but turned away from action that helped 95,000 problem gamblers and affected many other people.

“I’ll tell you why: they’re on the take,” Wilkie said. “The fact is that over recent years the poker machine industry has donated millions of dollars to the Labor party, the Liberal party, and other parties, and I tell you what, it’s turned out to be a pretty good investment for them. They’re seeing the return on that investment at the moment in the 44th parliament with the government seeking to overturn the modest poker machine reforms.”

Wilkie called for reform of political donations, saying: “Big money buys votes in this place.”

The South Australian independent senator Nick Xenophon and the Victorian DLP senator John Madigan echoed the calls for major party politicians to “show some backbone”.

Costello said the “very mild” reforms about to be undone included a $250 ATM withdrawal limit, warning signals and the ability for gamblers to set a voluntary gambling limit.

The anti-gambling campaigner lashed out at a “profound lack of leadership” on an issue that had strong public support, arguing both sides were “captured by the pokies lobby”.

“It’s no good, frankly, going off and praising Mandela, who we’re all praising on leadership, when on such morally clear issues of leadership you fail,” he said.

Costello said he had spoken to Andrews about the issue before the election but the minister “just smiled and said yes, well it’s a broad church”. Costello said he did not understand why Andrews, who had written a fine book about relationships, opposed strong action to deal with problem gambling that contributed to marriage breakdown and suffering.

Costello said he had exchanged text messages with the Labor frontbencher and former community services minister, Jenny Macklin. “I believe that Jenny Macklin is in deep deep distress about this but she has been rolled,” he said, blaming the NSW Labor Right and some Queensland members for fearing a campaign by clubs.

A spokesman for the shadow minister for communities, Claire Moore, said Labor was considering the amendments but remained supportive of “meaningful gambling reform measures”. Asked about Wilkie’s claims about the influence of donations, the spokesman said the assertions were “preposterous”.

“If he has evidence to suggest a Labor member or senator engaged in malfeasance or bribery then he should provide evidence; otherwise it’s an outrageous claim that does not contribute to the debate,” Moore’s spokesman said.

Andrews said the government was repealing the national gambling regulator's functions because states and territories already had their own regulators. "ATM measures, including cash withdrawal limits, are being removed to allow states to regulate," Andrews said in a statement. "States like Victoria are already doing this at a state level."

Andrews told parliament last month that the Coalition had indicated before the election that it would “adopt a different approach to addressing problem gambling”. He said the government believed in “meaningful and measurable support for problem gamblers” while acknowledging it was “a major problem for some Australians”.

Andrews said the government intended to implement poker machine pre-commitment technology in the near future “informed fully by consultations with industry, state and territory governments, and other stakeholders”. The trial of mandatory pre-commitment technology in the Australian Capital Territory would not go ahead under the legislation, Andrews confirmed.

Poker Machine Reforms: MPs Accused Of Lacking Mandela's Moral Leadership