Tuesday, January 17, 2012

No Win

I adored my Auntie Maisey. She was my grandfather’s younger sister. She lived in Epping, in Sydney, in a gorgeous house that smelled of a special mix of trees and damp soil and curry powder and perfume. Each summer, from the time I was a pre-schooler, Mum would take me on a 6 hour train trip to visit Auntie Maisey for a few days in the Big Smoke. We’d do a bit of shopping, eat and drink exotic fare like Spaghetti Bolognese and Iced Coffee.
Maisey was a widow with two grown daughters and soon, she retired. With more time on her hands, the local RSL club beckoned. I didn’t really understand what was happening when she sold her beautiful home and moved to a new, two bedroom unit not far away. In fact, I thought it was the height of sophistication.
Next to go was some of the glorious old furniture. Maisey just sold it. No biggie; it was just furniture to me. But when she moved to a smaller, more modest flat, and started shopping at St Vinnies, selling more furniture, selling her hand-crafted tapestries…well, I was old enough to understand. Maisey put every cent she owned through the pokies at Epping RSL Club.
Not long after she died in 1991, the Epping RSL moved to new premises. We’re all a little bitter – which parts of the palatial new club did Maisey’s gambling fund?

Why are Poker Machines a problem?
Problem gambling defies logic and about 75% of problem gambling involves poker machines, or ‘slot machines’ as they are known in the USA.  Problem gambling is counter-productive to living a happy and fulfilling life – and yet thousands and thousands of people do it in Australia. Clinically, it’s an “impulse control disorder”, similar to an addiction. Studies have shown that while playing the pokies, even casual players will experience a higher than normal occurrence of irrational thoughts. Source: http://oz.berkeley.edu/~aldous/157/Papers/irrational_slot.pdf
Different sources publish different numbers, but the consensus is that we’re talking about the number of adult Australians roughly equivalent to the population of Hobart having a gambling problem. Twice that number are considered to be moderate gamblers who are at risk of developing a more serious problem. 75% of problem gamblers play the poker machines.
January 2012
Right now, Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie is trying with all his political might to convince the PM to support  a national programme of Mandatory Pre-Commitment for all pokie players in Australia. ClubsAustralia and the AHA are fighting back with their $10m “It’s UnAustralian” campaign, arguing that clubs rely on the revenue from poker machines to fund their community support programmes.
I hate poker machines. I’ve played them, and I’ve been equally entranced, bored and disgusted. Mainly, I hate what they’ve done to people I love. I imagine Andrew Wilkie feels the same way.  While Julia Gillard holds her cards close to her chest, there are a few things about poker machines and gambling addictions that we should get on the table.

What is Mandatory Pre-commitment?
It’s a system which requires players to set the dollar value that they will gamble or the length of time they will gamble, before they start playing. If they are winning, they can continue to play with the money they are winning, but when they have used all of the money they committed before they started, and have lost all of their winnings, they cannot continue to play. The system requires that all poker machines in Australia be linked, so that if you are locked out, you can’t simply move to a different machine or a different venue.
 The other requirement is that in order to play the pokies, you must be registered – this is the so-called ‘licence to punt’. Civil libertarians and club directors are having a field day with that one. It doesn't mean finger-printing or excessive ID requirements - it requires about the same ID as it takes to enter a club, and gives Australians a choice about how much to gamble.
Mandatory PreCommitment is also known as “informed consent”, because it has been noted that when gamblers are gambling, they may experience a less rational state of mind, and be incapable of making a good decision about their gambling exposure in that situation.
The Productivity Commission has recommended mandatory pre-commitment as the way to help problem gamblers, calling it a ‘strong, practicable and ultimately cost-effective option for harm minimisation’.
While Ms Gillard is considering her options for Poker Machine Reform, Tony Abbott has promised to rescind these reforms if he comes to office.

Why are Clubs Australia, and the Australian Hotels Association against Mandatory Pre-commitment?
Obviously, Clubs Australia is vehemently against any measure that could reduce their profits, and they have launched a major campaign under the green-and-gold banner, its-unaustralian.com.au.  ClubsAustralia believes that Mandatory PreCommitment will reduce the amount of money being played through poker machines, and the result will cut into their profitability. They’re right.
And now we’re off and running. If the club loses money, the price of their food and drinks will need to rise and the amount of money they can donate to sporting clubs and other community charities will be less.
Mandatory PreCommitment would require that every venue in Australia with a poker machine have that machine (or machines) upgraded and wired into the national network. It is estimated that close to half of the machines in Australia are nearing the end of their lifespan, and so would be replaced. The total cost to clubs is estimated at around $3 billion dollars.
Are there any other options to help control problem gambling?
The other Government lead strategy is to limit the amount of an individual bet on a poker machine to a maximum of one dollar. The aim is to reduce the amount of money involved in each bet, making the funds potentially last longer, and the playing session last longer. This could have an impact on problem gamblers who play the higher stakes machines, as those machines would be re-engineered with a less risky, one dollar spin limit. This is an option always favoured by Mr Wilkie.

ClubsAustralia proposes a continuation of a programme called ClubSafe, in which they advocate voluntary, common sense approach to problem gambling, including counselling, self-regulation, Gamblers Anonymous and having club staff monitor and ‘counsel’ “at risk” gamblers. The problem faced by ClubsAustralia is that any programme designed to reduce problem gambling will, by its very nature, reduce the amount of money played through pokies and therefore, reduce the revenue to the club. Reducing the risk to problem gamblers is in conflict with their commercial imperative.
ClubsAustralia also supports the introduction of voluntary, venue-based pre-commitment rolled out over the natural life cycle of the machines, shifting responsibility back to the venues and making it optional.  This allows players who decide that should they wish to exercise the option of using pre-commitment as a tool for budgeting, this technology will be available to them. It also allows those who chose to ignore the facility to ignore it.  (source: http://www.its-unaustralian.com.au/Blogs/Blog/April-2011/What-should-be-done-to-help-problem-gamblers-.aspx)

How do we solve the problem?
Before we find a solution, we have to accept that the aim of Pokies Reform is to get those 100,000+ problem gamblers out of danger. When you consider that 40% of the money gambled via pokies is from problem gamblers, there will be consequences. There’s no doubt that revenue from clubs is a vital part of our community support structure; we can’t afford to lose it all, but we must be prepared to make some sane decisions.
We must accept that any successful pokie reform will mean less revenue for clubs.
I think it’s screamingly obvious that we need a comprehensive approach to the problem, an approach which combines the best outcomes for problem gamblers with the least impact on clubs. This solution must include:
ü  One dollar maximum bet limits on all poker machines – no exceptions
ü  Mandatory PreCommitment – Conditional (for example, for anyone wishing to play the pokies more than once in any given week.)
ü  Mandatory PreCommitment Technology to be phased in over three years, with Government incentives for Clubs as they comply
ü  Additional Support (counselling, support groups, literature) for problem gamblers and their families

 Random Facts about Poker Machine use in Australia 
·         Up to 1% of adult Australians have a gambling problem – 160,000 people
·         Up to another 2% of adult Australians have moderate gambling problems and are considered at risk.
·         At least 75% of problem gamblers play the pokies
·         48,000 Australians (30% of adults) have played the pokies in the last year.
·         15% of people who play the pokies weekly are problem gamblers and account for 40% of the money spent on pokies each week.
·         88% of pokie players bet one dollar or less on each spin.
·         Australians lost over $12 billion dollars through Poker Machines in 2010.
·         ClubsAustralia has a budget of $10m to fight the Pokie Reform legislation.
·         ClubsAustralia estimates the cost of bringing all of Australia’s almost 200,000 machines up to standard and adding them to a national network to enable PreCommitment at around $3b.

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