If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the gambling debate over the past year, you know that one of the key issues debated was over poker machine reform. The Gillard government had made efforts to add pre-commitment technology and make other changes to pokies in clubs and pubs throughout Australia, in large part due to the importance of maintaining the support of independent MP Andrew Wilkie.
As you likely know, the immediate plans for a watered down reform package failed to gain traction in the Senate in May, as some who supported reform in principal backed away when they felt the reforms had become too weak. However, this doesn’t mean that the issue is dead by any means. Here’s a look at how the pokies reform debate could continue in the coming months and years.
A new version of the poker machine reform legislation is expected to be voted on by parliament by the end of June. Should this legislation succeed, a trial of the pre-commitment technology would begin in the ACT. If that proved successful, then the technology would expand to other states. For the purposes for the trial, activity at the trial machines in the ACT would be compared to those in New South Wales – which some critics have pointed out will make it very easy for players to simply drive into NSW in order to play on machines that do not use the pre-commitment technology, thus skewing the results. It is possible that eight venues in Queanbeyan could also participate in the trial, though discussions on this point have not passed an informal stage.
In order for this trial program to proceed, there will need to be some major changes to the pokies currently in the ACT. At the moment, there are just over 5,000 poker machines in the ACT. About two-thirds of these machines would require upgrades in order to participate in the trial program, while the remainder would need to be outright replaced. In order to help with the cost of making these changes, the legislation would provide $36 million in government support to clubs and other venues in the ACT.
The trial would also require that all new poker machines support the pre-commitment technology, while ATMs in any venues that host pokies – with the notable exception of casinos – would be required to limit withdrawals to $250 each day.
The failure of the poker machine reform legislation has been attributed largely to the lack of any betting limits on pokies under the most recent form of the laws. Both the Australian Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon demanded that a $1 bet cap on pokies and clubs be implemented in an attempt to limit problem gambling.
One of the major arguments over such technology was the cost that would be required in order to implement such a change on existing machines. Some have said it could cost as much as $1 billion, while proponents say that the true cost would be closer to $200 million. Supporters claim that the change would help limit the ability of players with potential gambling problems from spending beyond their means, while those who oppose the change point not only to the initial cost of implementation, but also the fact that reducing bets will lead to reduced revenues for clubs, and limit player options without significantly changing the incidence of problem gambling.
Poker machine reform has been one of the more controversial political topics of the past year. While a majority of Australians seem to support pokies reform on some level, the fact that few can agree on the specifics of what this should entail has made it difficult to pass any legislation – particularly given the fierce opposition of the clubs industry. At the same time, it’s also proven impossible to kill the legislation entirely, as it has been reworked several times in an attempt to find a compromise that would gain enough support to make it through parliament.
It appears quite likely that some trial form of pre-commitment technology is likely to move forward in the coming months. Exactly what this will entail is hard to say, though the controversy over the $1 betting limit means that’s unlikely to be a part of any trial program. Instead, the plan to simply fit the technology to pokies in the ACT seems like the most likely direction for a trial program.
The ultimate fate of poker machine reform legislation may not be settled any time soon. Given that many of the decisions being made in order to attempt to create workable legislation have come down to trying to secure a handful of votes in parliament, future elections could easily affect the balance of power on this issue and either allow for more comprehensive reforms or scuttle the issue entirely.