Parliamentary hearings into gaming markets – what has happened in the hearings so far?

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By Dr Kate Burton, Advocacy, Engagement and Campaigns, SARC

The Tasmanian Parliament’s hearings into Future Gaming Markets got underway at the beginning of February. The first four days of hearings saw nearly 30 groups and individuals appear before the Committee.

In the first week, various bodies with a financial interest in poker machines were represented at the inquiry, including Federal Hotels, Dixons Hotels and Gaming Technologies Australia. These groups all want the State Government to give them more favourable conditions for their businesses in relation to poker machines.

In the second week a range of community groups, service organisations and individuals appeared before the Committee, including Community Voice on Pokies Reform, TasCOSS and Anglicare. These groups are calling on the Government to reduce the harms caused by poker machines in our communities by removing them from all pubs and clubs and locate them only in casinos, with appropriate consumer protection.

The main issues and arguments these groups used to support their calls are set out below.

Poker machines: harmful product or simple entertainment?

Industry groups suggested that poker machines are simply entertainment products, just like going to the cinema or buying an ice cream. The assertion was that people don’t expect to win; they are buying enjoyment.

The Committee was told, however, that poker machines are distinctly different to other forms of entertainment because they are designed to addict. Poker machine design and the environments in which they’re located lure users to keep playing, despite spending and losing more than they had intended. The machines are programmed to ensure that over an extended period the machine always comes out ahead.

The fact that poker machines aren’t simply another form of entertainment was highlighted by the extensive evidence of the harms caused by poker machine use. Lifeline stated that gambling was one of the top 6 issues for people calling their helpline; Relationships Australia reported increasing numbers of people seeking their help for poker machine gambling. And the Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services stated that most people harmed by gambling were harmed by poker machine use.

The Committee was told that the stigma involved in admitting harm caused by poker machine gambling meant the number of people seeking help for gambling was probably the tip of the iceberg. It heard that the notion of ‘responsible gambling’ on poker machines contributes to stigma because it suggests that a person who falls prey to the machines must be ‘irresponsible’, so they keep the problem to themselves.

Individual choice or a product designed to addict?

A public health expert told the Committee that poker machines are like tobacco — there is no safe use because they are designed to addict. Poker machines are therefore always a risk for people who use them; statistics show that one in six regular poker machine users will develop a problem with gambling.

The industry claimed that using poker machines is an individual’s choice — each person can freely choose when to start and stop gambling. But because poker machines are designed to addict they aim to, and do, undermine a person’s ‘free choice’.

Is gambling in venues safer than gambling online?

The Committee was told that people who gamble in venues are very different to those who gamble online. So removing poker machines from pubs and clubs won’t necessarily result in a shift to other forms of gambling, which is one of the claims the industry used to argue that poker machines should stay in their venues.

Evidence was given that gambling at venues isn’t ‘safe’ because staff can’t or don’t intervene when people are harming themselves through gambling. A hotel worker who developed an addiction to using poker machines told the Committee his managers knew he gambled excessively on the machines at the venue, but no-one questioned or stopped him. In the end, he lost everything.

The Committee also heard that self-exclusion wasn’t always effective because it relied on venues recognising and turning away people who were on self-exclusion lists. If intervention and self-exclusion worked, the Committee was told, Tasmania would not have over 2000 people who are harmed through poker machine use.

What about the economy if pubs/clubs didn’t have pokies?

The Committee was told that there would be impacts on some pubs — including possible closures — but that there should be no place in our community for industries whose business model relies on products that cause harm.

The following economic arguments about the impact of poker machines were also addressed:

– Modelling by the Gaming Commission and the Productivity Commission shows that the poker machine industry would cease to exist without the money from people with gambling problems

– Pubs/clubs have adapted to changing regulatory, technological and consumer environments, for example the ban on smoking and the shift from people drinking at venues to buying take-away alcohol, so can also adapt to being pokies-free

– Of over 150 clubs in Tasmania with liquor licences only 7 have poker machines, so clubs can be viable without them

– Money currently lost on poker machine gambling would be spent elsewhere in local communities, creating economic benefits for those communities including jobs.

The heart of communities — pubs or people?

Counter to the industry argument that pubs with poker machines are at the heart of communities, Anglicare and other organisations believe that the heart of a community is its people and the connections between them. Products like poker machines that cause harm and create addiction are the antithesis of community.

In summary: governments always have a choice

The Committee was told that the Tasmanian Government has a clear policy choice: design the gambling environment to ensure the best revenue returns to government and the industry, or design it to ensure the interests and wellbeing of the community are met.

Anglicare believes that all of the evidence shows having poker machines in pubs and clubs produces an unacceptable level of harm in communities, and that the machines should only be located in casinos with appropriate levels of consumer protection.

This approach is in keeping with the Government’s focus on preventative health, community safety, family violence prevention, addressing mental health and suicide, achieving better education and employment outcomes, and protecting vulnerable Tasmanians.

What happens next?

The Committee expects to hand down its report in September this year. It is still interested in receiving community views, so we encourage you to express yours. You can email them directly:

Mike Gaffney

Tania Rattray

Robert Armstrong

Sarah Courtney

Scott Bacon

Andrea Dawkins

The Hansard transcripts are on the inquiry website.

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