Andrew Wilkie says everyone knows the deal when it comes to gaming machines, even Federal Hotels.
ONE of the fascinating revelations in James Boyce’s new book, Losing Streak: How Tasmania was gamed by the gambling industry, is how Federal Hotels was once a fierce critic of allowing poker machines into Tasmanian pubs and clubs.
Let me explain.
Times were tough in Tasmania in the early 1990s, with high unemployment and even higher state debt.
Ray Groom’s Liberal government was cashstrapped and had seen other states introduce poker machines into hotels and clubs to increase taxation. But community opposition to the machines was high, and Federal Hotels had been given the exclusive right to operate casinos on a strict promise of no poker machines.
In a submission to a Legislative Council inquiry into the matter, Federal Hotels cited polling it had commissioned that found 74 per cent of Tasmanians opposed the introduction of poker machines in hotels. The gambling giant argued a referendum had resolved the issue of setting up casinos in Tasmania and, clearly, “the polls of today are saying that a referendum on the introduction of machines into hotels and clubs would fail”.
Federal Hotels warned that the spread of poker machines would damage the economy and “be detrimental to the pub and club industry as a whole”.
Household disposable income would be redirected to machine gambling. Jobs would go due to the loss of revenue in food and entertainment businesses, retail and the racing industry. Poker machines in the community would “not attract one extra visitor to the state, or promote the state to one new domestic or international market”.
Boyce also recounts Federal Hotels’ social concerns: “Gaming machines in hotels and clubs give easy access and little control” and “machines in hotels and clubs will be easily accessible by a large number of people in the suburbs, some of whom cannot afford to gamble”.
One Federal executive even warned that the “only people” who will “sit in the pubs are addictive gamblers”.
Federal had looked overseas and highlighted the experience in Holland and France, where poker machines had been removed due to their addictive nature and social harm. Federal concluded that the spread of poker machines “would have a disastrous effect [on] the social fabric and special culture of Tasmania”.
This is pretty much the same case Community Voice on Pokies Reform – an alliance of 25 peak bodies, organisations and local councils that includes Anglicare Tasmania – is putting to now remove poker machines from pubs and clubs.
However, in a twist too convoluted to describe here, the Liberal government of the day was so reluctant to upset Federal Hotels that it eventually gifted the company an exclusive licence to operate all poker machines in pubs and clubs in Tasmania.
In 2003 Federal hit the jackpot again in a secret, and controversial, deal with the Labor government, which extended Federal’s exclusive right to own every poker machine in Tasmania until at least 2023.
Time has proved Federal Hotels’ dire predictions true.
Tasmanians lose about $200 million on poker machines every year, and the State Government’s own gambling survey shows the true cost of gambling addiction far outweighs the tax collected.
Federal Hotels is now Federal Group and continues to donate generously to the state Labor and Liberal parties.
Its owners are well established on Australia’s rich list.
Fortunately, the deed with Federal Hotels gives the Government a chance to give notice next year that the 20-year exclusive licence will expire in 2023, and that at that point all poker machines must be removed from pubs and clubs. The timing is perfect for the State Government to experience its own “Road to Damascus” conversion and acknowledge the pokies experiment has failed.
Tasmania is no longer an economic basket-case. The tourism-led resurgence has turned it into an economic success story and pushed up business confidence, employment and house prices.
Community Voice on Pokies Reform research shows attitudes have only hardened against poker machines, with four in five Tasmanians wanting poker machines reduced in number, or removed entirely from pubs and clubs. One in three Tasmanians knows someone seriously affected by gambling on poker machines.
If the Liberal Government will not back the community and remove poker machines from pubs and clubs, it shows none of the parties can be trusted to deliver pokies reform and that a referendum on the matter is needed.
Labor, despite its apparent interest in the harm caused by poker machines, is in fact even more obsequious than the Liberal Party when it comes to dealing with Federal Hotels.
The Greens are no better.
They made no attempt to achieve any meaningful reform when they were in the balance of power.
It is time to end Federal Hotels’ winning streak.
It is time to hold Federal to its belief that poker machines are bad news.