The NSW Government Versus the Gambling Industry: Will the House Win?

poke reform clubsnsw cashless gaming card gambling

“The time for talk is over. Pokies reform should be a no-brainer for politicians of all stripes.”

These are the words of Unions New South Wales Secretary, Mark Morey, who came out guns blazing in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald against ClubsNSW and the gambling industry.

“We have a rare chance at bipartisanship which will overwhelm the club lobby’s deceitful tactics of threatening jobs and communities to kill reform,” Morey said.

“The NSW union movement has a proud history of standing up for all working people. We need action on cashless gaming cards now.”

There is currently a seismic shift in the way Australia deals with the scourge of gambling going on, with the NSW government squaring up against one of the most powerful lobby groups in the country, ClubsNSW.

“Human misery is a financial lifeblood for many NSW clubs,” said Cities Minister, and arch supporter of the Premier, Rob Stokes, in a blistering attack on the state of gambling in NSW.

“The comforting stereotype of a suburban bowlo nestled in a quiet street under the gum trees is far from the reality of many contemporary clubs — bloated concrete bunkers separated from their community by vast treeless carparks,” Stokes told NSW Parliament.

“Outwardly brutal, unwelcoming junk spaces, that all look the same. Inwardly, a fairyland of lights and delights – all directed to deprive the vulnerable of their savings.”

Australia has one of the highest problem gambling rates of any country in the world. Roughly 80% of the country gambles, with an estimated $25 billion lost to gambling annually. In Victoria alone, the social cost of gambling, based on productivity loss, psychological and relationship damage, is estimated to be around $7 billion each year.

At the centre of it all is NSW. Citizens of NSW have more opportunities to gamble than virtually any other place on Earth. There are more pokie machines here than there are anywhere else except for Nevada, the home of Las Vegas. While the Northern Territory has far and away the highest rate of gambling expenditure per capita, at $12,613 per year, according to Statista, NSW is number two.

Facts and figures like the above are why NSW Premier, Dominic Perrotett claims he wants to crack down on problem gambling in the state. He aims to do so by introducing what is known as a ‘cashless gaming card’.

What Is a Cashless Gaming Card?

The ‘card’ may technically not be cards in the physical sense. According to the NSW government, gambling machines can be set up with Bluetooth connections to patron’s phones. This allows for the direct transfer of money from a digital wallet on their phone to the machine.

Funds cannot be added to the digital wallet within venues and will deliver real-time data on their spending and their time playing machines. Limits can be set using the technology, which include time restrictions, number of visits to a venue, total spend, and total bets played. Players can choose which limits they want to set before playing and they cannot be altered within a 24-hour period.

This system creates a paper trail for organised crime gangs who wash illicit funds through gambling.

The Battle to Bring Down Gambling

Multiple inquiries into Crown casinos and Star casinos, as well as a report by the NSW Crime Commission have all backed the idea of a cashless card. The argument dates back years but has come to something of a head in recent months under a Premier keen to make ambitious changes in his state ahead of a looming election.

NSW Labor Leader, Chris Minns, has, for his part, skirted the issue, saying he agrees with a trial of the idea in theory but not if it’s a mandatory change.

ClubsNSW and the Australian Hotel Association have fought hard to ridicule the idea. They say that the cost of implementation would cost people their jobs. It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that the cards are a direct threat to the $95 billion that flows through their pokie machines each year. The Crime Commissions’ report recommended that cards be set with a daily limit of $1000 after finding that billions are being laundered through pokes by criminals.

ClubsNSW launched a campaign called ‘Gaming Reform the Right Way’, which claims that the cashless card system would treat patrons “like criminals” and financially cripple the clubs that do so much good community work. This is in spite of the fact that, as Stokes pointed out, just 1.5% of gambling revenue is reinvested into charitable projects, something that was mandated as part of the deal when NSW clubs were given a monopoly to run machine gambling in 1956.

Tactics have descended into the ugly and the absurd in this fight, with NSW residents being flooded with robocalls ‘surveying’ their attitudes to the cashless gaming card. The automated calls appeared to claim the proposed changes were opposed by numerous global charities, including World Vision and Oxfam, while asking recipients whether “local pubs and clubs [should] be made to spend millions … before this technology has been trialled and assessed?”

A limited trial for the technology is already underway, having been initiated at one club in Newcastle in October, and is due to wrap up this month. Minns has called for an expansion of the trial before a state-wide roll out, something that Perrotett is expected to announce ahead of the election.

At the same time, Liquor and Gaming NSW has said that it is “concerned” about a recent spike in venues seeking licences to run pokie machines between the hours of midnight and 4am. Its own data shows that venues with extended trading hours have almost double the profits of those who operate during standard hours, something they put down to problem gamblers and people chasing losses as the night wears on.

As the SMH pointed out on Thursday, the tide has well and truly turned on the pokie industry and the clubs at the forefront of this racket. As well as Unions NSW, numerous charities, the Crime Commission, and the Health Workers Union, recent polling suggest that 63% of voters are in favour of the cashless gaming card. There is, however, division over exactly how the cards should be rolled out, with just 32% of those in favour saying the cards should be rolled out without a trial with immediate effect. The rest either want voluntary or mandatory trials or are undecided.

As Morey points out, NSW is on the cusp of a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to tackle an insidious problem in our society.” But, he cautions, jobs must be protected and affected workers looked after.

“We know that working-class communities disproportionately shoulder the burden of problem gambling,” he said. “Within these vast headline figures lie shocking numbers of ruined lives, lost wages and acute social damage.”

Related: NSW Gov Stakes Its Reputation on Cashless Gambling Cards

Related: Australia’s New Gambling Warnings Will Do More Than Just Tell You to Gamble (Responsibly)

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