05/05/2011 - 00:00

WA clubs gambling on the pokies

05/05/2011 - 00:00

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Andrew Wilkie’s plans for legislation on poker machines could change the way gaming plays out in this state.

THE push by Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie for tighter national controls on poker machine gambling has raised the hopes of Clubs WA that the ban on poker machines in Western Australia will soon be lifted.

Clubs WA has stepped up its efforts to get the state government to review the ban, which has enjoyed bipartisan political support for almost 20 years.

The issue has resurfaced because of Mr Wilkie’s demands that the federal government honour an undertaking he received after last year’s federal election; it was a condition for his support for the minority Labor administration.

Mr Wilkie has said his proposed reforms, which include mandatory nomination of limits on losses by players before they use poker machines, are non-negotiable. He has threatened to withdraw his support for the government if they were not implemented.

Clubs Australia has retaliated by launching an open-ended campaign ‘with no budget constraints’ against the measures. It says the proposals, designed to reduce the social harm from problem gambling, would cost billions to implement. It says recreational gamblers would also be driven to other forms of gambling outside the clubs.

This is where Clubs WA comes in. It says that because of the absence of pokies in this state – ignoring for the moment the 1,500 electronic gaming machines at the Burswood Casino – more and more Western Australians are gambling online, where problem gambling goes undetected.

Clubs WA executive director Peter Seaman says it is hypocritical to continue to deny licensed clubs access to gaming machines – in this case pokies – as on-line gambling continues to flourish.

“WA, with 10 per cent of the Australian population, takes up 30 per cent of the Australia-wide lotto spend, primarily because of a lack of other options,” he says.

“It is therefore reasonable to accept that WA households, offices, mine camps and the like, are generating around $300 million of the $1 billion spend generated through on-line gambling products.

“Much of the on-line gambling product currently being used by Western Australians is generated by overseas organisations that operate in an unregulated marketplace with no requirement or capacity to benefit the WA government or its citizens.”

In other words, the state government is missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in gambling taxes, and the 1,000 clubs around WA are being deprived of the extra revenue to provide better services to their estimated 310,000 members.

The revenue the states derive from gambling differs markedly across the nation. For example, gambling taxes in Victoria generate 13 per cent of that state’s revenue. It’s 10 per cent in New South Wales it’s 10 per and only 4 per cent in WA. So more pokies, on the surface, should be attractive to the clubs, and the government

One inhibiting factor, though, would be the legal monopoly that the Burswood Casino has enjoyed since it opened in the mid-80s. Brian Burke’s Labor government legislated for the initial casino partners – who included Labor donor Dallas Dempster – to enjoy an on-going monopoly on its gambling activities. So pokies could only be introduced in clubs – and hotels would want some of the action as well – if that legislation were first amended. And there would also be a question of possible compensation for the Packer interests that now own the casino.

Another is the issue at the heart of Mr Wilkie’s concerns – problem gamblers. A report last year by the Productivity Commission identified the extent of the challenge. It found that of the 600,000 adults who play the pokies each week across the nation, 15 per cent are problem gamblers and a further 15 per cent face moderate risks from their playing habits.

WA hasn’t always been opposed to pokies. The state went within an ace of their introduction with the election of Richard Court’s coalition government in 1993. The then finance minister, Max Evans, pursued the issue after realising that other states were finding them lucrative, and that cash-strapped WA could benefit as well. Mr Evans says the WA Treasury was the stumbling block.

“I could have brought it in on the first day,” he told me.

“Richard Court would have jumped at it if I could have provided an extra $350 million.

“But the Treasury was so stupid in those days. If you raised your revenue by $350 million, they said you had to lift expenditure by $350 million to ensure a balanced budget. The last thing I wanted was for my ministers to have another $350 million to spend when I’m trying to get them to spend less because a Labor government has just gone out.

“My ideology was that I was opposed to more expenditure, not that I was opposed to pokies. But we get no recognition from the Grants Commission for the loss of revenue. They should now be giving us compensation of $600 million annually. But the commission is run by t’othersiders.”

In what would be bad news for Clubs WA, Mr Evans predicts the existing policy will continue.

Racing and Gaming Minister Terry Waldron agrees. He says both he and Premier Colin Barnett have sought assurances from the federal government that WA’s ban on pokies in hotels and clubs will not be affected by the Wilkie initiatives, and that there will be no loopholes able to be exploited.

“The premier has written to Jenny Macklin (community services minister), and I have spoken to her about this, and have made her aware of our concerns,” Mr Waldron says.

“We are told that won’t happen but it’s something that always has our concern, because the last thing we want is to have poker machines foisted upon us.”

But he is leaving nothing to chance, adding: “Obviously if they draft legislation based on the Wilkie issue, we will go through with our legal people with a fine-tooth comb.”

The risk for WA is that once the gambling issue is opened up, the Commonwealth might decide that the easiest path is to implement measures aimed at controlling poker machine gambling, across the states. Even if it tries to fireproof WA, the question is, would that withstand a challenge in the courts?

The issue is due to be thrashed out at a special COAG ministerial meeting later this month. And state governments have until May 31 to agree on new laws forcing gamblers to nominate how much they are prepared to lose.

If the states fail to come to the party, it is understood the Commonwealth has legal advice that it can act independently to force the changes through.

That could open Pandora’s box. And despite the federal assurances, both the WA government and Clubs WA and their lawyers – will be following developments with an eagle eye.

 

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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