Published: 14 February 2023

The long and tortuous process of reforms to electronic gaming machines (EGMs) in the community provides an illuminating case study into public policy implementation.

EGMs have always been subject to licensing arrangements and a limit on the numbers permitted. The dangers from open slather were recognised from the outset.

The government's proposed mandatory card arrangements, which will limit the amount players can lose, are a welcome tweaking.

One of the express aims of the Future Gaming Market (FGM) reform process was to give players a better deal. Reform was not meant to be simply a redistribution of the spoils from Federal Hotels, the current monopoly operator, to pubs and clubs.

The gambling industry has always asserted only 0.4 per cent of the population are problem gamblers, but if those who don't gamble due to age or disinterest are excluded, the proportion is closer to 40 per cent. That makes it a significant public policy issue that needed addressing.

The proposed mandatory pre-commitment card is being labelled by the gambling industry as an attack on personal freedoms.

But is trying to limit harm from EGMs any different to limiting the freedom to drive a car without a license, on the wrong side of the road, at excessive speed with an elevated blood alcohol reading or without a seatbelt?

The freedom argument centred on a person's supposed innate right to have a flutter on the pokies.
But the industry's privately expressed pessimism about how the mandatory card will impact its bottom-line suggests the freedom argument was always just a straw man proposition to hide the reality that it relies on problem gamblers for its profits.

Originally under the FGM reform measures, the government wanted to allocate licenses to operate EGMs to pubs and clubs via a tender system. But pubs persuaded the government the licenses should be gifted to them. If the industry had agreed to pay for the new EGM licenses it may well now have an argument against a measure like the mandatory card, which will reduce the value of the licenses.

Unless, of course, the industry, by complaining about the mandatory card, is simply grumbling about not getting its money's worth from the amounts allegedly donated to help secure the re-election of the Hodgman government in 2018.

Which if true, only highlights the need for donation law reform so governments reneging on promises pre-empted by donations won't occur because donations will be forbidden or if not, made fully transparent.
Hopefully the gaming industry will now join the move for donation law reform.

Pubs and clubs need to apply for new gaming licences by June 30. Not all current operators will do so, as the smaller players are reassessing whether it will be worth it.

Already the Devonport RSL has announced it won't be proceeding. More small venues are likely to follow suit. Small venues were an integral part of the media campaign as beneficiaries of the gaming reforms which, it was argued, would flow down and benefit communities. This is looking increasingly unlikely and more smaller pubs likely to face financial uncertainty.

The upshot is that forfeited licences will be re-allocated. The battle to secure access to those licenses will precipitate another round of community angst as the larger operators battle to secure a bigger slice of the pokie pie now threatened by the mandatory card arrangements.

The biggest obstacle to a speedy resolution of an issue where an overwhelming number supports sensible policy has been the party system. A system that has allowed a narrow interest group to hijack the political process to stoke an adversarial confrontation between parties and which has been wasteful, time consuming and contrary to the public interest.

Let's reflect on the downside of our adversarial system as we make tortoise like progress to reform electricity pricing and our health system, both vital issues where there's a large degree of bipartisan agreement.

The Advocate, Tuesday 14 February 2023


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