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Pokies reform to prevent problem gambling

NSW is home to more than half of the country's pokie machines. Photo: Flickr/Threthny

By ALLISON HORE

The pokie industry in NSW is set for a big shake up as the Berejiklian government drafts legislation to help combat the state’s gambling problem.

Under the proposed legislation family members of problem gamblers could apply to have their relatives banned from gaming venues and facial recognition technology could be used to identify problem gamblers. Venues would be fined up to $27,500 if they fail to stop self-excluded gamblers.

The bill would also require venues to have a staff member who had undertaken advanced training to help people stay safe rostered on for each shift and put into place a gambling incident register, similar to the one that exists for alcohol related incidents. 

The man behind the bill, NSW Minister for Customer Service Victor Dominello, said NSW has been slow when it comes to gambling reform and wants to see the state leading the way.

“The reality is we are number one when it comes to how many poker machines we’ve got, but we’re the laggard when it comes to harm minimisation measures,” he said.

With 95,000 poker machines across the state, NSW is the number one state for number of poker machines. And the industry has been lucrative for the NSW government and hospitality industry. More than $6.5 billion in state taxes are brought in each year from pokie machines, and hotels across the greater Sydney region alone raked in $1 billion of pokie profit in the first 6 months of 2019.

Industry backlash

The legislation has not been warmly received by the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) NSW and Clubs NSW who say they are “concerned by the potential impact and cost” of the proposed legislation. They say that they have been “disappointed” with the government’s lack of consultation with industry. 

Clubs NSW CEO, Josh Landis, said clubs across the state are committed to harm minimisation but the proposed changes had “gone too far, too soon”.

“Gaming revenue has fallen 14 per cent year-on-year as a result of the 10-week industry shutdown, while food and beverage takings are down 60 to 70 per cent,” he said.

“I don’t think anyone would agree that the middle of a pandemic is the right time to introduce onerous new compliance requirements.”

AHA NSW CEO John Whelan agrees. He said that the industry has been committed to “good harm-minimisation policy”.

“We don’t believe our patrons want to be monitored through facial recognition each and every time they catch up with mates at the pub,” he said.

The Greens, who have supported the Berejiklian government’s proposed legislation, are urging the government to “to stand firm in the face of a predictable hissy fit by Clubs NSW and the AHA”. Greens gambling spokesperson Cate Faehrmann MLC said the legislation isn’t about money, but people’s lives.

“People who are addicted to poker machines can lose everything as they feed their addiction, including hundreds of thousands of dollars, their jobs, their loved ones and tragically, even their lives,” she said.

Mr. Dominello told the ABC last week one of the factors influencing the creation of the bill was the death of Gary Van Duinen, a gambling addict who took his own life in 2018 after a 13-hour pokie binge at Dee Why RSL. Over two years he gambled around $3.7 million and lost $230,000. Widow Sonia Van Duinen said the club refused to step in. 

Despite industry concern about the impacts of COVID-19, in NSW gambling skyrocketed when lockdown ended. Across the state there was a total of $571 million in gambling losses in June. This was more than $40 million higher than in the same period last year.

“An absolute joke”

Alliance for Gambling Reform Chief Advocate, Rev Tim Costello, supports the harm minimisation legislation. He said the current system is “an absolute joke” and the controversial facial recognition technology is just one part of the bill. 

“The proposed legislation, for the first time, really puts the onus back on clubs and pubs to do the right thing and they clearly don’t like it,” he said. 

“The key part of this legislation is forcing pubs and clubs to have properly trained people actively enforcing self-exclusion, something the industry has blatantly failed to do for decades.”

The proposed legislation isn’t the only overhaul set for the pokie industry in NSW. On Saturday the Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Berejiklian government was also considering a move to make poker machines completely cashless. 

To be able to use pokie machines players would be required to register for a government-issued gambling card which they would have to pre-load money on to. The card would be linked to the state’s exclusion register to block out thousands of self-excluded gamblers.

While the cashless plan is yet to be included in the legislation Mr. Dominello says he has crossbench support for it from the Greens and One Nation’s Mark Latham.

Australians lose almost $24 billion a year to gambling, this means the nation has the highest per capita gambling losses in the world. Much of those losses come from pokie machines.

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