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Can we really trust clubs to help gamblers?

Martin Thomas

20 June 2024

The ACT is among the most advanced in the country in pushing towards a mandatory, cashless gambling card.

Evidence shows such a card with pre-set and binding limits will be the best weapon we have in effectively curbing gambling harm.

And according to the NSW Crime Commission it will not only limit gambling harm but it will also tackle the billions of dollars from the proceeds of crime that is fed into poker machines across the country every year.

Getting this policy right and ensuring it is implemented quickly and effectively has profound implications not only for the ACT but for the whole of Australia.

What happens in the ACT, Victoria and Tasmania (the other states moving on a cashless gambling card) will be a critical beachhead in the fight against the nation's gambling addiction.

For a small jurisdiction of under 500,000 people, gambling losses in the ACT are both staggering and tragic. Some $188 million in losses were suffered in the last year - equating to an eye-watering $16 million every month.

The family of a gambler who took his own life after going broke has blamed the Hellenic Club of Canberra for not doing more to stop him pouring his money into its pokies machines.

These losses are mirrored by social damage at an industrial scale, leading to financial hardship, marriage break up, domestic violence, health and mental health issues, and suicide.

The ACT Labor Party last week pledged, that if elected, it would reduce to 1000 the number of machines in ACT clubs by 2045. This will be achieved by a mandated reduction of 500 machines every four years, through a compulsory surrender process.

Labor wants to fast-track the implementation of a cashless framework to 2026-27, which would provide users with personal spending and time limits to reduce harm arising from their use of pokies. It wants to strengthen self-exclusion and ban ATMs and eftpos withdrawals in clubs.

There are also proposals to have player activity statements in real time and restrictions on access to credit cards and transfers from overdrawn accounts.

There is a lot to like about what the Labor is proposing for the ACT. Reducing the number of machines, imposing a cashless system with pre-set limits and banning ATM withdrawals at clubs all have strong merit.

The fact Labor is saying the self-exclusion will no longer be venue based is fantastic. It all reflects a serious effort to protect territorians from the harms caused by poker machines.

But the plan does have some holes in it. Not least of which is the reduction of the number of machines is a long way off.

Poker machines may well be largely redundant due to gambling trends slowly shifting towards online gambling, by the time 2045 arrives.

We also know that despite a slow reduction of the number, the remaining machines can still cause much carnage.

But perhaps the biggest knock against the ALP blueprint is the absence of a centralised monitoring system.

Labor says the cost is too much (citing a $70 million estimate) and the time to implement it is too slow. We understand that recent market soundings show such a system could be delivered within two years and at less than half the initial estimated cost.

Why is it so important to have a centralised system? Because otherwise it is left to the clubs themselves and the weakest link in the system becomes any one of the individual clubs that botch its implementation and use.

When there is a centralised system, you can have an independent body that can control and secure the information.

We simply do not trust the clubs to do either. There is nothing to stop them using the technology to actually enhance their marketing to people. We do not trust them "helping" people set up loss limits and we don't trust the clubs to secure critical personal data.

The data hack on NSW clubs in May, which led to the driver's licenses of more than a million people being exposed, simply underscores the dangers.

Currently the ACT Attorney-General, Shane Rattenbury, is seeking to get through government a proposal for mandatory precommitment, loss limits and a universal player card underpinned by a central monitoring.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform is firmly of the view that cashless gambling is not an end in itself. However, collecting more sophisticated data about individual gamblers linked to an individualised mandatory cashless gambling card with important features including binding and default limits, provides the opportunity to significantly reduce gambling harm.

In short it is the gold standard. It is the path the Tasmanian government is heading in. It looks possible to be the direction Victoria is taking too. It should be the goal for the ACT.

We applaud all efforts to highlight the devastating impact gambling has on the ACT community. But the ACT will get one shot at getting a system in place that can truly protect people from gambling harm.

It is an opportunity that in an election year becomes more complicated. But it is an opportunity that must not be squandered.

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