By Sophie Heizer
THE ACT Labor/Greens government has recently outlined a raft of changes to the regulation of gaming machines and Canberra’s community clubs.
They say they are doing this because they are “committed to reducing gambling harm” in Canberra. This is hypocritical nonsense.
There is a widely held view, which I share, that the government is far more motivated by payback for the political position adopted by some clubs at the last election than it is by concern for gamblers.
The Labor Party is after all, through an entity it controls, one of the largest owners and operators of poker machines in Canberra. The CFMEU, a union affiliated with the Labor Party and a significant and influential organ of its ACT branch, similarly controls an entity that owns and operates a large number of poker machines. The Labor and Tradies Clubs, and a small number of clubs with links of one sort or another to the government, have scabbed on ClubsACT and established a breakaway group through which, one assumes, it will hope to leverage its favoured status with its Labor and Greens mates as the so-called gambling reforms are rolled out.
Put simply if the Labor Party was serious about reducing gambling harm from poker machines it wouldn’t, as reported in 2016/17, own and operate 489 of them, generating $13,394,933 or 14 per cent of total net poker machine revenue in the ACT, to bankroll its operations and pay for its election campaigns.
The Labor Party and the CFMEU, in 2016/17, through their respective clubs, together operated 956 poker machines which generated $23,911,997 or 25 per cent of the total poker machine revenue generated in Canberra.
It is claimed that upwards of 60,000 people in Canberra have been affected at levels ranging from significant to very serious as a result of poker machine use. This is undoubtedly an issue of major concern.
If one extrapolates the relative proportion of total revenue garnered by the Labor Party alone from the poker machines it operates against the same proportion of people in Canberra harmed by gambling on poker machines, then the ACT branch of the Labor Party is directly responsible for the gambling harm experienced by 8400 Canberrans. It seems reasonable then to ask Labor representatives, at both a territory and Federal level, all of whom benefit from the revenue generated by Labor’s poker machines, if they accept any responsibility for that harm.
Putting the hypocrisy of the government to one side there remain a number of problematic aspects to the so called reforms: These include:
- The broad-scale breaches of privacy resulting from the clandestine collection of personal information about people visiting clubs, which clubs are mandated to collect, without the approval or knowledge of the people involved, to provide to the government in the form of Gambling Incident Reports.
- Concern that the Chief Minister, who has lavished millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on an out-of-town professional men’s AFL team, proposes to restrict the capacity of Canberra clubs, created and sustained by local residents for the express purpose of supporting local professional men’s and women’s sport, from continuing to do so.
- The contradictory and hypocritical decision by Labor and the Greens to oppose support for professional men’s sport in stark contrast to their lack of qualms about poker machine revenue being used to support and sustain professional politicians, namely themselves.
- The proposal to increase the tax on gaming revenue by a further 0.8 per cent and hypothecate half that amount to a charity, Hands Across Canberra, to pass on as grants to community organisations. There appears to be no good reason why this tax should not be paid into consolidated revenue and disbursed through the usual mechanisms and subject to the same rigorous standards that should apply to all taxpayer funds.
- The cosy arrangement with Hands Across Canberra has also unfortunately politicised the charity, indeed it is already referred to throughout the club sector as “Hands in our Pockets”. It also sets a dangerous precedent for the unsupervised and unaccountable disbursement of public monies.
- The role which the Labor government, with the unquestioning support of the Greens, plays as a regulator of gaming machines when its administrative arm has a multi-million dollar interest in the gaming machine industry. It is highly likely that as a result of the latest increases in taxation and charges, changes to the regulatory regime and the government sucking up to the casino that smaller clubs will not survive. The larger and stronger clubs, such as the Labor Club, facing less competition, will prosper. In other words it is almost certain that the latest round of gaming reforms being pursued by the Labor government will financially benefit the Labor Party.
Without disputing that harm from gambling is a serious issue requiring a concerted response from government and the club sector, the current knee jerk, politically driven response risks doing great harm to community clubs, which for a staggering number of Canberrans, particularly from the lower-income quintiles, are central to their capacity to participate in the life of the Canberra community.
As a postscript: where have the unions been in all this as the government openly attacks jobs and undermines the capacity of working-class families, pensioners and older Canberrans to enjoy a meal or a night out with family or friends in a safe, inviting and affordable place?