THE new Canberra Casino owners have taken a gamble. They should lose – and know what it feels like to lose.
Gambling is about carrot and stick. Hong Kong-based Aquis Entertainment purchased the Canberra Casino with a vision for a grand development.
This is the carrot.
If they win they will build two new hotels, including 100, five-star rooms. Additionally, as they learn more about what makes a good casino environment, they are prepared to build restaurants and high-end retail outlets.
The temptation for the government to accept the carrot is great, especially in an economic downturn. The promise includes creating “200 full-time new jobs and 420 ongoing jobs”. The development will be worth more than $300 million.
And the gamble – that the government grants a permit for 500 additional poker machines.
They should lose.
In the ACT, poker-machine ownership is restricted to the not-for-profit sector. Assuming Aquis Entertainment did their homework, they would have known that the Canberra Casino is unique in Australia – it is a casino without poker machines.
Until now, governments have stood firm on the condition.
They should remain firm. Aquis should be denied access to poker machines. They took the gamble. You bet they knew the risks.
Government should not be tempted. There is a simple reason – and this is the stick – the downsides simply outweigh the benefits.
Casino owners invariably argue that the high rollers coming to their casinos are the ones that bring tourism and big money into the community.
Nonsense! The evidence shows the opposite. Locals pay a totally disproportionate share. The burden is not distributed equitably. Problem gamblers contribute a staggering 40 per cent of the total money lost on poker machines.
Problem gamblers account for about one per cent of our population but lose about $8 billion a year, providing the lion’s share of gambling-venue profits.
This is why the industry so strongly resisted attempts by Julia Gillard’s government to introduce binding pre-commitment. Even regular gamblers, without a gambling problem, invariably plan their spending and restrict themselves to that commitment. Problem gamblers, by definition, are not able to manage such an approach.
The ACT Labor Party does have a conflict of interest on poker machine policy, being heavily funded by Labor-affiliated clubs with poker machines.
Despite this conflict, Labor governments have restricted the number of poker machines in the ACT. The evidence is clear, the greater the poker machines, the greater the harm. The policy of restricting numbers of machines at least somewhat contains the harm.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr has responded in what appears to be a sensible approach.
“We welcome their proposal… but we haven’t yet fully analysed all of the costs and benefits,” he said.
Forget it, Andrew. The benefits are exaggerated. We should learn from Tasmania where both Wrest Point and Launceston casinos started with no poker machines until the government reneged under the promise of great development opportunities, high rollers and a boost to the economy. It was a similar story in SA and the NT. The benefits never really materialised.
The costs are obvious and the evidence is clear: it is the most vulnerable in our community who will wear the costs.
In “The Conversation”, the myth of the high roller is exploded. Francis Markham, from the Australian National University, with Martin Young, from Southern Cross University, point out: “Pokies in casinos are even more harmful than those in smaller clubs and pubs.”
“All Australian casinos – bar Canberra – rely on local gamblers playing pokies.” They refer to this as “the local grind market”.
Aquis executive director Justin Fung has taken what appears to be a reasonable gamble. The odds appear to be with him. After all, other states and the NT folded under the sort of pressure he is leveraging. But it is a gamble and should be recognised as such.
All members of the Legislative Assembly should respond with the same level of compassion that casinos have for problem gamblers. Well, Aquis, no poker machines. Too bad. Your choice. You gamble. You lose.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.