Tasmanian Labor has got itself into a terrible policy mess over poker machines. To say the party is conflicted and confused is an understatement – more backflips than an Olympic gymnast – but with the ending of the Federal Group’s poker machine monopoly, we will see what they are really made of.
For the first two decades of this century Labor had been a strong cheerleader for the poker machine industry. It was a Labor government in 2003 that granted Federal a monopoly on all poker machines in Tasmania. But by the 2018 state election, Labor leader Bec White promised to remove all poker machines from pubs and clubs in Tasmania.
Labor lost that election to the Liberals on the back of a massive gaming industry-backed scare campaign, although Ms White did say the party’s poker machine policy would not change. But by early 2019 that position was comprehensively reversed – Ms White going as far as signing a memorandum of understanding with the Tasmanian Hospitality Association to support the “rights” of pubs and clubs to operate poker machines.
Notwithstanding, anti-pokies campaigner Pat Caplice pointed out recently in a Talking Point contribution that Ms White has since publically stated that Labor will “put in place the best harm minimisation framework that we can because it is important to look after those people who are most at risk …”
Well, here’s her chance.
The Government is about to introduce legislation to end the monopoly and grant licences to individual venue operators. The shortcomings of the legislation are manifest – industry self-monitoring, no end date for re-evaluation, significant tax cuts to Federal, windfall capital gains from the licences – to name just a few, but the fundamental legislative flaw remains; without real and effective harm minimisation in place, it’s business as usual for the exploited gambling addicts.
No matter how the Liberals slice and dice the ownership model, problem gamblers will do their money, just as quickly.
When I talk privately to my Labor colleagues they almost invariably profess a dislike for poker machines, but like a deer caught in the headlights they are frozen by the lure of taxation swelling the treasury, and the fear of the wrath of the industry should they dare interfere with the profits.
Rank-and-file Labor voters, pretty much to a man and woman, hate poker machines too. I hear it all the time, and my plea to them is this: don’t stand for another Labor backflip. Tell your Labor members of parliament that you want Ms White and her caucus this time to stick to their principles. Tell them you do not want poker machines feeding homelessness, crime, suicide, childhood poverty and domestic violence into your community. Tell them you want Labor to protect them and care for them. Tell them not to bow to the unconscionable poker machine industry.
In short, demand the party grows a backbone.
This is where the rubber is about to hit the road for Labor. I know – and Bec White knows – that current harm minimisation measures are a joke. They do next-to-nothing to help problem gamblers or prevent those at risk of becoming addicted. But if Labor parliamentarians aren’t prepared to back real change to harm controls, then they will be branded as hypocrites and nothing more than Liberal-lite.
And what’s the point of that in an opposition?
So here’s a heads-up for Labor. When this legislation is brought to parliament I will be tabling a suite of real and effective harm minimisation measures for them to support. These will include a $1 maximum bet limit per spin (currently $5); slower spin speeds; increasing the return to player to 95% (currently 85%); and limiting opening hours for gaming venues.
None of these measures are new, unproven or difficult to implement, and none of them impact on recreational players. They have been variously proposed for many years by independent and respected researchers such as Professor Charles Livingstone from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, the federal Productivity Commission, and Tasmania’s Liquor and Gaming Commission. In addition, they are endorsed by well-regarded social reformers such as Rev Tim Costello AO and social service providers including the Tasmanian Council of Social Service.
And if Labor needs any more reason, a recent survey by respected, independent polling agency EMRS found that 71 percent of Tasmanian voters support lowering maximum bets to $1, while 80 percent think licensing changes to poker machines should include consumer protection and harm minimisation. So why the indecision – the experts recommend it and the people want it. You would think any responsible political party, one not in thrall to the poker machine industry, would be all over this.
So for Labor it is a clear choice. By true to their rhetoric and support meaningful reforms, or backflip. Again.
Just a moment, though. The Liberals aren’t off the hypocritical hook either. Recently elected Liberal Madeleine Ogilvie has for many years been a consistent voice for poker machine reform. Here is a short-list of her activism: in 2014 she said “yes, definitely” in response to a question on whether she would support a bill to phase out poker machines; in 2017 she told local government that she had concerns with poker machines and would “prefer it if they weren’t in the suburbs”; in 2019 she supported tighter bet limits and slower machine speeds.
Will Ms Ogilvie be a back flipper too?