December Newsletter - Alliance for Gambling Reform

December Newsletter

National data, Vic legislation, Woolies AGM, confronting James Packer, Northern Beaches and Champions for Change  

December 5, 2017

Dear Supporters,

Welcome to this bumper summer newsletter update from The Alliance for Gambling Reform.

There is plenty going on with some new shocking data on national gambling losses, the Victorian pokies legislation getting approved by a cynical Lib-Lab joint ticket, the Woolworths AGM, a trail-blazing anti-pokies motion passed by Sydney’s Northern Beaches Council, NSW charities rejecting tainted pokies cash, a big Alliance splash at the Crown Resorts AGM in Melbourne, some more revelations about pokies industry donations and great progress with giving a voice to people with a lived experience of gambling harm.

  1. New data confirms Australia’s national gambling shame, led by NSW pokies
  2. Major parties recklessly legislate for 20 more years of Victorian pokies harm
  3. Making a splash at the Woolworths AGM
  4. Northern Beaches blazes the trail against the pokies in NSW
  5. Laurie Brown case a wake up call for all pokies venues
  6. Confronting James Packer at the Crown AGM
  7. Time to clean up gambling industry donations in Australia
  8. Champions for Change and empowering those with a lived experience


1. New data confirm Australia’s national gambling shame

The Age splashed with this story on p1 today and it comes from the latest national gambling loss data produced by the Queensland Treasury. (see p55 and p57 of this 820 page document.)

The best that can be said is that at least the 2014-15 growth rate of 7.7% to $22.7 billion has slowed to an increase of 3.9% to $23.64 billion in total gambling losses in 2015-16.

As our spokesman and director Tim Costello told Fairfax: “When you are the world’s biggest gamblers and 40% clear of the next country, Singapore, in per capita terms, it is nothing to celebrate that only an extra $900 million was lost in 2015-16.”

The data is also 17 months out of date, highlighting Australia’s woeful transparency compared with the likes of Macau and Nevada which release monthly data. Britain’s national gambling regulator this week disclosed total gambling losses had risen 1.8% to 13.7 billion pounds ($A24.4b) in the 12 months to March 30, 2017.  Britain has a population almost triple Australia’s and, taking into account the delayed data, our losses are currently probably higher than the UK.

Sports betting remains top of mind in Australia courtesy of the unseemly advertising deluge and it was again the fastest growing segment as losses rose by 15% to $920 million in 2015-16. However, the latest national figures once again confirm that the pokies are the biggest contributor to Australia’s tragic status as the world’s biggest gamblers.

NSW is the most pokies-soaked jurisdiction in Australia and, incredibly, it is also the fastest growing with losses rising by 6.2% to a record $6.1 billion in 2015-16, representing more than half of the $12.07 billion lost on the pokies nationally.

NSW is back to its old position of generating a majority of national pokies losses, which is an indictment on the NSW Government and a reflection of entrenched gambling industry capture of key institutions in NSW.

And the NSW budget is projecting strong further growth in pokies losses in future years, which is no surprise given its lax regulatory system.

The NSW pokies industry has also been on p1 of The SMH this week after Lisa Visentin’s extraordinary revelations about the amount of money venues such as the Fairfield Hotel are deluging on charities, hospitals and the like to win approval for additional pokies.

Alliance NSW spokesperson and deputy chair Allison Keogh, who recently presented a key note on successful 2017 campaigns at the Australian Progress FWD+ organise conference, made the following statement after The Fairfield Hotel story broke:

“If the Fairfield Hotel can offer that much cash to charities just to obtain 7 more poker machines, it clearly expects to make a lot of money from a community which is already experiencing one of the highest rates of poker machine harm in Australia.”

“Rather than trying to buy approval for more pokies by approaching needy charities with one off pokies-funded handouts, the law in NSW should be changed to remove all requirements that venues distribute funds to local charities and instead give this role to the government through taxes.” 

“Pokies applications should succeed or fail on their merits, not based on which charities or public services receive some of the tarnished profits derived from people who fall into the trap of an addictive product.  Current contributions to community from clubs and pubs pale in comparison to the losses and harm experienced”

The Local Impact Assessment Process for approval of pokies licenses is currently under review and The Alliance is calling on the NSW government to freeze all pending applications until this flawed process is revised.

Charites such as White Ribbon have now sworn off receiving pokies cash and there has been strong media commentary about the flawed decision to get involved in the first place.

Of all Australian jurisdictions, NSW has the highest losses on poker machines and the lowest tax rates, suggesting the government is under-taxing the industry by at least $500 million a year. 

NSW taxpayers only received $1.46 billion in tax revenue from the state’s 95,000 poker machines in 2015-16 when total losses were $6.1 billion. This effective tax rate of just 24% compares with new Victorian legislation passed last week which will see the government take 44.5% of all pokies losses as tax revenue in the period from 2022 until 2032.


2. Major parties recklessly legislate for 20 more years of pokies harm

And speaking of Victoria, The Alliance was deeply disappointed that both sides of politics conspired last Thursday to rush through legislation before Christmas which will lock in an estimated $70 billion in poker machine losses through until 2042?

As The Age reported last week, the Labor and Coalition leadership wrestled with delaying the legislation ahead of last Thursday’s Legislative Council debate, but then ultimately conspired to deliver for the pokies industry.

Given that the existing Victorian 10 year pokies licences don’t expire until August 2022, our spokesman Tim Costello formally requested all the political parties delay the legislation until 2018, so that significant amendments, such as those outlined by Reason Party MP Fiona Patten to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, could be debated and implemented.

The issue was discussed at the Coalition and Greens party room meetings last week and the Greens raised the issue strongly  in the Northcote by-election whilst proposing substantial amendments.

Given the harm caused by pokies industry in the Labor heartland  – as former Victorian Labor Premier John Cain outlines in this video - it remains puzzling why the party chose to rush the legislation through the upper house at 6pm last Thursday after a 4 hour debate. See the Hansard   which runs from page 29 to page 59.

The connection with family violence is the other obvious contradiction, particularly for Labor, which is campaigning hard on the issue. The Alliance wrote to all Victorian MPs calling on Parliament not to legislate on poker machines during the current global 16 days of activism for the elimination of violence against women.

Check out Rosie Batty’s twitter feed for more on that as she does a tweet a day for the full 16 days of global activism, which runs until December 10.

Rather than a respectful deferral, the response from Labor was instead to bring on the upper house pokies debate earlier than expected and the response from the Coalition was to talk internally about delay and amendment but then meekly conspire with Labor to pass the legislation unamended.

Tim Costello and two women with a lived experience of pokies harm – Anna Bardsley and Carmel Harty – watched the Legislative Council debate over many hours last Thursday and were appalled with what they heard and saw.

As we explained in this media statement, all 3 were ejected from the public gallery for sequentially giving the big party MPs a serious piece of their mind as they voted for the bill which will allow an estimated $70 billion in pokies losses over the next 25 years until 2042.

It’s not as if they weren’t warned about this toxic legislation. Here’s a chronological account of how the legislation rolled out and we engaged with Victoria’s 128 Members of Parliament over the past 5 months:

July 7: Government announces proposal to entrench pokies harm for another 20 years, Alliance issues strong statement opposing the move.

August 11: Government announces higher tax arrangements to lift current pokies tax revenue of $1.1 billion.

September 20: Government introduces legislation into the lower house.

September 26: Alliance issues statement calling for delay, amendments and an upper house inquiry.

September 29: Alliance letter to all Victorian MPs requesting an upper house inquiry into pokies laws given Labor’s brave anti-pokies position in Tasmania and industry uncertainty caused by the Federal Court case brought by Shonica Guy against Crown and Aristocrat.

October 9: Kelvin Thomson and Tim Costello wrote to all MPs expressing concerns about the legislation and seeking meetings to support amendments or delay.

October 11: Letter from Anna Bardsley to all MPs inviting them to attend Monash Uni pokies panel discussion at Deakin Edge, plus the “Women Against Pokies” rally on October 31. No major party MPs showed up to either.

October 23: Susan Rennie invited all Victorian MPs to attend “Women Against Pokies” rally – none of the major party MPs showed up or even offered up a speaker. Fiona Patten, Suzanna Sheed and Colleen Hartland all spoke. Watch the full video here.

October 25: all Victorian MPs invited to join us at the Crown Resorts AGM – none showed up.

October 29: letter to all MPs about lack of gender diversity in the gambling industry and our upcoming “Women Against Pokies” rally.

October 31: 10 women speak about pokies harm on the steps of Parliament, then 3 hours later pokies legislation passes lower house 81-3 with first ten speakers all men. Only independent Suzanna Sheed and two Greens MPs voted against. See full Hansard from pages 23-63.

November 5: Alliance announces Northcote by-election campaign, erecting almost 100 corflutes in Northcote raising awareness about the pokies legislation ahead of the November 17 by-election.

November 17: Labor suffers shock defeat in Northcote by-election with pokies legislation a prominent issue.

November 21: all Victorian MPs invited to join us at the Woolworths AGM – none showed up.

November 29: letter to all MPs from Susan Rennie requesting the legislation be deferred in the upper house until 2018.

November 30: legislation passes the upper house 31 votes to 6 – Alliance issues strong statement condemning reckless law-making.

It is now less than 12 months until the 2018 Victorian election and we will be putting maximum pressure on all parties to come up with gambling policies that promote meaningful reforms in the world’s most gambling-harmed country.

A number of Victorian MPs claimed that the pokies legislation doesn’t stop future governments from introducing more effective harm minimisation measures and we will be holding them to account on that front.


3. Alliance director Susan Rennie takes on Woolworths at Melbourne AGM

Australia’s biggest pokies operator, Woolworths, held its AGM in Melbourne on November 23 and Alliance director Susan Rennie made quite a splash as a candidate for the board.

Indeed, this video of her remarkable campaign speech from the stage has already attracted more than 35,000 views on Facebook – making it the most viewed AGM speech in Australian history.

Susan explained the rationale behind her tilt in this Crikey piece and The Alliance launched this petition calling for the Woolworths board to get out of the dreadful pokies business, which is now producing a record 10.17% of total group profit, as was outlined in this recent Alliance press release.

Woolworths chairman Gordon Cairns met with Susan the day before the AGM and was very clearly impressed, almost apologising at the AGM for recommending shareholders vote against her election.

The pokies took up more than 30 minutes of debate time during the AGM that lasted 2 hours and 6 minutes. We distributed this flyer to almost 200 shareholders before the meeting commenced.

Woolworths shareholders also heard from Anna Bardsley, who famously confronted James Packer at the Crown Resorts AGM, to ensure the board fully understood the damage they cause from their 12,000-plus poker machines scattered across 329 Australian venues.

Chairman Cairns attempted to front foot the issue of Woolworths being Australia’s biggest pokies operator, as you can see in his chairman’s address at the AGM.

However, it was his contentious claims about Woolworths being the most responsible pokies operator that most raised eye-brows. Susan Rennie told shareholders there are many who think the exact opposite and that Woolworths are Australia’s most irresponsible pokies operator.

This list of the 51 Victorian Woolworths pokies venues which are open 20 hours a day, 7 days a week is all the proof you need that Woolworths are not being responsible. How can anyone justify having 69 Melbourne pokies venues open at 2am this morning and 2am tomorrow morning?

If you want to listen to some of this Woolworths gambling debate for yourself, go to the webcast and check out the following exchanges:

Video here. Stephen Mayne exchange with chairman Gordon Cairns.

Video here. Anna Bardsley challenges chairman Gordon Cairns.

Video here. Susan Rennie introduces the story of “Sarah” who gambled herself to death, losing more than $1 million at the Woolworths-owned Blackburn Hotel.

Chairman Cairns has promised to publically declare whether Woolworths is prepared to move on the question of trading hours and limits on daily cash withdrawals. The Victorian legislation does nothing about trading hours but does introduce a $500 daily limit on cash withdrawals.


4. Kate da Costa joins Alliance as NSW campaigner as Northern Beaches takes a pokies stand

The Alliance is delighted to be expanding our capacity so please join with us in welcoming Kate da Costa to the team as our NSW campaign co-ordinator.

Kate has a strong background in politics and community activism and most recently worked for a community legal centre.

She will be working hard in NSW council areas worst hit by poker machine harm, such as Fairfield, Canterbury/Bankstown, Wollongong, Newcastle, City of Sydney and the Central Coast as we start to put the pressure on MPs from the Coalition and ALP in the lead up to the 2019 NSW election. The Alliance will be working with community groups in all those areas to give local people a voice which is currently drowned out by tainted pokies dollars.

Kate only started last month and has already worked with Northern Beaches councillors who put up a strong pokies notice of motion which was debated at last week’s council meeting. See page 212 of the agenda.

Northern Beaches Councillors, despite some predictably strong, late, lobbying by ClubsNSW, called on the State Government to cap poker machine numbers in their local government area. They also resolved to write to the four Liberal MPs whose seats are covered by the Council, asking them to speak out to the government also calling for more local control. And finally, they resolved to start development of their own Poker Machine and Gambling Harm Minimisation Strategy.

We were delighted when the motion passed 10-3 and we released this detailed statement explaining the significance of the development and how individual councillors voted.

Kate also asked questions at the Ainsworth Gaming Technology AGM in Bankstown last week where 94-year-old pokies billionaire Len Ainsworth was seeking re-election to the board.

Our capacity to impact the NSW gambling debate is on the rise and if you’d like to contact Kate directly, email her on [email protected].


5. Laurie Brown case a wake up call for all pokies venues

The Canberra Times broke the remarkable story on November 25 about Raiders Group facing a fine of $120,000 for failing to intervene in the case of Canberra University academic Laurie Brown.

Lots of politicians are currently concerned about bank customers, but what about the customers who provide $23.6 billion to the gambling industry in 2015-16?

Holding venues more responsible for the well-being of patrons suffering harm has long been a poorly regulated aspect of Australia’s state-based pokies regulatory regime, so this action against the Raiders is a welcome if long overdue development.

Andrew Wilkie was absolutely right to call for the Raiders – which has a power-packed board including the current and former Secretary of Defence as directors - to stop resisting and instead look into actually compensating Laurie Brown.

The Laurie Brown story is quite extraordinary. As The Canberra Times outlined in print:

Prof Brown says she gambled on 160 nights from about 10pm to closing 4am, making 242 cash withdrawals from ATMs and 353 from the club's EFTPOS. On some nights she went back six or more time to withdraw more money, losing thousands of dollars on some nights.

Susan Rennie outlined a similar story at the Woolworths AGM about “Sarah” (not her real name) who is estimated to have lost more than $1 million at the Woolworths-owned Blackburn Hotel in Melbourne over many years up until her death in 2014.

A relative of “Sarah” has provided The Alliance with large wads of bank statements showing literally hundreds of withdrawals made at the Blackburn Hotel over many years. You can see Susan Rennie holding the huge wad of bank statements in this video. A de-identified sample of the banks statements can from seen from a link on this media notification sent out before the Woolworths AGM.

The relative accompanied Susan to the pre-AGM meeting with Woolworths chairman Gordon Cairns last Wednesday and also attended the AGM on Thursday. You haven’t heard the last of this tragic story.


6. Making a splash at the Crown Resorts AGM

Staying with AGMs, The Alliance sent a team to ask questions of James Packer at the Crown Resorts AGM in October and ended up engaging in detail with the board.

Anna Bardsley made a big impact challenging the board to be responsible and Mr Packer promised to make Crown more transparent, although we’re yet to set the detail of how this will happen with no still no breakdown of poker machine losses at its Australian casinos.

It is worth going to the transcript on some of the exchanges, starting with Tim Costello challenging chairman John Alexander to explain why Crown hires so many former politicians.

Tim Costello: We all know that the gambling industry is very powerful in Australia, partly because of political donations to parties and certainly because of hiring ex-politicians who are well connected still. Why do we need the likes of Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib and Stephen Conroy, Graham Richardson, Peta Credlin and Helen Coonan working either for Crown or for the controlling shareholder?

Chairman, John Alexander: I think like many Australian companies we’re entitled to employee lobbyist consultants that we see useful or relevant to our ambitions.

And this is how the exchanges Anna Bardsley unfolded:

Anna Bardsley: Thank you. I have a proxy to speak, forgive me if I don’t follow the protocols, it’s my first time. I’m a retired businesswoman and a lot of other things and also a recovering poker machine addict. It’s 10 years since I put any money into a machine, but those 10 years of recovery have been long and hard. I turned into a person I didn’t recognise.  I was always ethical and responsible and all that sort of stuff.  What I want to ask you is, how much do you know about the real people who are harmed by particularly poker machines which are known to be addictive, they’re designed that way?  And an example I have to give you is, I haven’t been here in this place for over 10 years, because I used to come here, and it was very hard to even think about coming. If I see or hear a poker machine accidentally, because I don’t go anymore, they still have the power to trigger my brain and if that’s not addictive, I’d like to know what is?  And so, I challenge you to hear more voices like mine and believe me, it won’t be easy to find them because it’s really hard to put the shame aside that comes with a gambling addiction to stand up and speak about it and I have not been able to do it alone.  But I encourage you to hear the voices and to recognise that what your product is doing is more than just getting you a lot of money.  So, can I leave that with you?

John Alexander, Crown Resorts chairman: Yes, you can and look, we’re obviously very sympathetic to your personal situation and the general points you raise and I can assure you we do take responsible gaming issues very seriously, we invest quite a lot of money over the years, a lot of time over the years to become a world leader. Our property was the first in the world to have specially trained staff over 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s an ongoing process.  We’re learning all the time and basically we’re always frankly trying to improve. In fact, it’s probably worthwhile my introducing Professor Horvath, who’s the Chair of our Responsible Gaming Committee to give you perhaps some insights about where this process is and what we’re trying to achieve?

Anna Bardsley: I’d like to handover the term, ‘responsible gambling’, to everybody in the sector, including you who operate the machines and the government who gets a lot of money from it.  It’s not only the people who put the money in who need to be responsible.

James Packer: Can I just make a comment?  I’m very sympathetic for the difficulties that the last 10 years has put you through.  Crown is a company that runs casinos, that’s the business we’re in.   It’s impossible to run casinos without having tables and slots because that’s what creates the revenue.  I think we have a real responsibility to make sure people aren’t harming themselves, because in truth if that happens it becomes bad for our business because there’ll be political backlash, let alone the human cost which is very, very real.

Gambling is a complicated industry and there are many players in it, and some of the players in it have, I would say, a less ethical approach than the approach we try to have.


7. Time to clean up gambling industry donations in Australia

Later on at the Crown AGM, there was also this exchange with James Packer on the question of political donations:

Stephen Mayne:  So, let’s have a policy of zero (donations from gambling companies and directors).  At the family level – because I mean your mother gave half a million to the Liberals in New South Wales five years ago.

James Packer: I can’t control my mum.  Do you control your mother?

Stephen Mayne:  I could say, ‘Mum, don’t give the Liberal Party half a million dollars while I’m trying to get approval for Barangaroo’. So, I mean, it’s not a good look.

James Packer:  Well, it happened to coincide well.

Stephen Mayne:  Yeah.  But, can we go zero?  Serious question – can we have a policy which is zero?

James Packer: I think we should.

Crown director and former Howard-era Communications Minister Helen Coonan also piped up with the following comment:

Helen Coonan: Can I add something there about New South Wales?  Anyone associated with a casino, including directors, are totally prohibited. You cannot make a donation to a political party in New South Wales.

That restriction certainly doesn’t apply in Queensland where casino company Star Entertainment continues to make donations and did so in recent months ahead of the recent Queensland election.

Queensland has the best donation disclosure laws in Australia, with data from the last week of the state election campaign already available here on the electoral commission website.

The Alliance was very disappointed to see that both the Australian Hotels Association and Clubs NSW were active donors as usual.

Woolworths are the biggest AHA members in Queensland and presumably supported the controversial decision to donate $2985 to the One Nation campaign.

And ALH, the trading names for the Woolworths pokies division, even made a direct $5000 donation from its South Yarra headquarters in Melbourne to assist the campaign of the Kawana branch of the LNP.

The gambling industry has poured millions into the pockets of political parties over the years, which partly explains why Australians are the world’s biggest per capita gamblers with annual losses reaching $23.6 billion in 2015-16.

If the major parties can refuse to accept tobacco industry donations, we believe a similar strong stand should be taken with gambling.


8. Champions For Change – empowering those with a lived experience of gambling harm 

Alliance deputy chairman Allison Keogh, who grew up in a family impacted by poker machine harm,  recently presented a keynote at the 2017 Progress Australia FWD+organise conference under the banner of successful 2017 campaigns in Australia.

Allison outlined our work to give power back to those harmed by gambling, and reduce the power of the gambling industry.

She showcased our work in Kaching community screenings, supporting Shonica Guy in her trail-blazing Federal Court case against Crown and Aristocrat, the recent Women Against Pokies rally in Victoria, our “Love footy, hate pokies” rallies outside AFL games, plus our more recent presence at corporate AGMs and in the Northcote by-election.

With Diana O’Neil recently hired to co-ordinate The Alliance’s new Champions For Change program, we are pushing ahead strongly elevating the voices of people with a lived experience of gambling harm. This was certainly confronting for the boards of Crown and Woolworths and we will have a lot more to say about this in 2018.

Champions For Change was launched in Adelaide in October and the Victorian launch is on Friday, December 15. Anyone who would like to get involved can write to us here outlining their experience.


That’s all for now.

Do ya best, The Alliance team.