Poker machine reform a double-edged sword for states

NSW and Victoria are behaving like rival Renaissance city-states on poker machine reform, pushing their own agendas with little recognition of the mutually assured damage they risk. Unless they get their acts together, people and dirty money will cross the border to play in whichever state has the slackest gambling regulations.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has announced a series of reforms for the state’s 30,000 poker machines.Credit: SMH

The Andrews government has announced sweeping changes to gambling legislation in Victoria, putting renewed pressure on the Minns government to fast-track the rollout of a cashless gambling card and take stronger action to limit the social harm of poker machines.

The Victorian reforms will force all venues – except Melbourne’s Crown casino – to close for six hours a day, from 4am to 10am; gamblers will be required to show identification before playing; and will have to set a limit for how much they are prepared to lose each day. Load-up limits – the amount of money people can put into a machine for a round of play – will be capped at $100, down from the present limit of $1000. Every new poker machine will also be required to spin at three seconds per game, from 2.1 seconds, in an attempt to slow the pace of playing.

In NSW, after years of prevarication by major political parties, changes to poker machine regulation were mooted when then-premier Dominic Perrottet announced reforms in February on the eve of the state election. Premier Chris Minns subsequently added Labor’s take, vowing to reduce the number of machines and ban political donations from clubs with gaming operations, but refused to make all poker machines cashless by 2028, as recommended by the NSW Crime Commission. Instead, he said he would set up an independent panel to oversee a delayed trial of cashless gaming cards for poker machines. It is scheduled to deliver its findings by next June.

By way of contrast, the Victorian crackdown on poker machines announced out of the blue on Sunday will begin to come into effect by year’s end. The changes will create problems for NSW because parts of the Victorian reforms are definitely tougher than those proposed here, while some measures do not go as far as we would like.

So, while NSW dithers on reform and talks about a trial before decisive action, Victoria reversed years of hedging and just got on with it. The eye-opener in all this is that nearly all gambling reform advocates were united in their belief that Premier Daniel Andrews was a tougher nut to crack than any politician in NSW. Having said that, there has also long been a cosy history between Macquarie Street MPs and the pubs and clubs lobby. It begs the question, if reformers can get to Andrews what explains their failure to be given such a welcome mat here?

Another aspect of Victoria’s surprise announcement is it will leave NSW disadvantaged by weaker anti-money laundering and gambling harm minimisation regulations. Their reforms may have the unintended consequence of pushing people with gambling problems and/or criminals wishing to launder dirty money north across the Murray River. Andrews virtually acknowledged this, boasting his reforms “will provide the strongest gambling harm preventions and anti-money laundering measures in Australia”.

Clearly, these are two dynamic states potentially with quite different systems to regulate their respective gambling industries. However, the potential for dirty money and problem gamblers being driven north in the search for more lax regulations clearly shows there are valid arguments that the Minns government should consider amending the terms of references of its independent panel to look at the benefits of both states acting in unison on some aspects of poker machine reform.

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