Friday, March 2, 2018

Today by Paddy Manning

Pub test: Wrestling the no-armed bandits
Tasmania’s election is a referendum on pokies ... and guess who’s losing

It’s not especially rough, it’s not especially poverty-stricken, it’s not especially ugly, but Pritchards in Western Sydney is right in the sweet spot for the ALH Group, the pubs arm of supermarket giant Woolworths.

Tasmanians go to the polls tomorrow, in what has become a referendum on the pokies ban proposed by Labor and the Greens. And the bitter irony is that punters in NSW are almost certainly helping to buy this state election. It’s been claimed that the Liberal Party has spent $5 million (five times what Labor has spent) on election advertising. The Liberal Party’s political opponents speculate that this budget is heavy with donations from the gaming and hospitality industry – likely from the Sydney-based Farrell family who own the Federal Group that monopolises gaming in Tassie, but also possibly non-profit groups like Clubs NSW, which are underpinned by the country’s largest pokies owner, Woolworths. We will find out eventually.

It was always a high-risk strategy taking on such a powerful and profitable industry in a small and opaque state, where there is no anti-corruption body, no public funding for elections, and the country’s weakest donations disclosure regime. A little bit of campaign expenditure goes a long way in Tasmania, and anti-pokies activists fear that a defeat there tomorrow will a bad precedent for the rest of the country.

It’s a lose-lose proposition. Pritchards is Woollies’ most profitable gaming venue in NSW, and the 14th-most profitable in the state, generating an annual profit of $9.3 million in 2016–17.

The machines are horrific money-suckers: on some, punters can lose $1498 an hour.

Out in the public bar, around midday, I catch snippets of conversation between a few blokes at the next table having a quiet counter lunch:

Bloke 1: How’d you go?
Bloke 2: I got fuck-all out of ’em...
Bloke 1: Yep, that’s how it works...
Bloke 2: Sweet. Fuck. All.

They could be talking about the greyhounds or the Keno – both are screening in the background – or the pokies. After all, there’s plenty of ways to get reamed here.

In the dismal gaming room, wallpapered like a ’70s Chinese restaurant, there are 30 machines and about 20 punters – almost all of them men – ambling from one machine to another. The golden “Dragon Cash” machines in the outside smoking area do “majors” – payouts over $10,000, I gather – while the plainer “Dragon” machines inside don’t.

Pokies used to be like playing poker – hold the good cards, draw the rest – but that’s all gone, apparently. Now, all you do is control how much to bet on the next spin. Marvelling that it’s my first go, two guys gave me a bit of advice, beginning with: “Don’t get into it. They’re addictive.”

When told that Pritchards is Woollies’ most profitable pokies venue in NSW, the younger guy answers: “It would be – it’s that tight.” Apparently the machines used to have more features and pay out more. They’ve tightened right up, he reckons, and the pub controls it: “I swear they’ve got a button.” Questions about Andrew Wilkie’s revelations this week – how they track the “high rollers” and do “whatever” needed to get them to lose more – get a blank response.

The two men sit there, side-by-side, never stopping except to spit when they get one-off-a-three- or four-of-a-kind, taking turns to press the spin button – some shared superstition, perhaps. At least it’s halfway social. Today they say they’re in front: on this machine, they started with $100 and the credit is sitting at $370, then falls to $330, then jumps over $400, then steadily falls back down. But there’s no illusions: they know they’re going to blow all their credit, and the idea of quitting while they’re ahead barely registers. “Then what do we do?”

They split on the question of a Tassie-style ban on pokies in pubs and clubs: the older guy supports it, the younger less so, but he does worry about the old people putting their pensions into the machines, getting behind on their bills. Food vouchers aren’t the answer, perhaps it’s income management or cashless welfare cards.

NSW Greens MLC Justin Field has bought the data – it’s not freely available – and tallied the figures. The Fairfield local government area has more machines, 3836 according to a recent Fairfield council submission, than the 2375 in all of Tasmania. Field told The Monthly Today:

“People have recognised that the massive pokie profits being made by the big hotel owners like Woolworths and the powerful clubs industry are often coming from those who are most vulnerable and can least afford it.

“I haven’t been surprised to see a big campaign being mounted by the pokies industry in opposition to the push in Tasmania to remove poker machines from clubs and pubs.

“We’ve seen historically Clubs NSW involved in national campaigns and trying to stymie reform to reduce gambling harm, which they see as a threat to their revenue.

“To me it shows that these vested interests, who are also big political donors, have too much influence over gambling policy in Australia. The losers are once again the community.”

since this morning

With sharemarkets reeling, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo has warned [$] that sweeping United States tariffs on steel and aluminium imports will cost Australian jobs and potentially set off retaliatory trade bans that could push the global economy into recession.

The Australian is reporting [$] that the Tasmanian Liberal government’s push to relax John Howard’s national firearms laws is a betrayal of victims of the Port Arthur massacre.

The Guardian reports that forestry has been absent from the Tasmanian election: Labor doesn’t want to remind people of its government with the Greens, and the Liberals are shy about a policy even the timber industry doesn’t want.

in case you missed it

Former Treasury secretary Ken Henry, chairman of NAB, has supported [$] a company tax cut while lamenting a lost decade of tax reform.

Waleed Aly asks, “If Americans can rise up against guns, why can’t we act on pokies?”

Fairfax Media reports that the prime minister and the Opposition leader have agreed on the scope of a new parliamentary committee that will work towards a successful referendum on Indigenous recognition in the Constitution.

The federal government has announced that it will spend $6 billion buying out New South Wales’ and Victoria’s shares in Snowy Hydro Limited.

by Luke Goodsell
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by Russell Marks
Don Dale is the tip of the iceberg
Mistreatment of vulnerable people in detention is commonplace throughout Australia

Paddy Manning

Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is the author of Inside the Greens and the unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?


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