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The Tasmanian Government already collects the least amount of revenue from gambling taxes of any Australian jurisdiction, both per head of population and as a proportion of gross state product, according to the Fifth Social and Economic Impact Study of Gambling.  So why on earth would Tasmania even consider cutting the tax rate for the Federal Group on poker machines?

Tasmanians have been waiting for years to see the State Government’s new poker machine deal. Many wondered how big the Liberals’ thank-you gift would be to the gambling industry that bankrolled its 2018 election win.

All was revealed recently, as back-room strategists no doubt hoped all eyes were focused on the beleaguered Labor party electing a new leader for the second time in six weeks. Interesting timing to say the least.

While it was hardly a state secret that the Government intended to hand a hefty tax cut to its great political mate Federal Group, it certainly delivered in spades – almost halving the gambling giant’s poker machine tax rate in casinos from 25.88% to 13.91%.

The Government is trying try to make a virtue of the fact that Federal is worse off in gross terms, but let’s not forget its casinos still get to keep an enormous number of poker machines and the gambling giant also owns some of the most lucrative pokies venues in the state – the Elwick and the Valern among them.

Importantly, the Tasmanian Government is under no obligation to keep any poker machines with Federal when its monopoly ends. Indeed the Liberals had promised to auction off the right to operate all poker machines for the next 20 years, which would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Add that to its list of broken promises.

Pubs, which might appear to be worse off with their higher tax rate, will in reality win too, because every pub will strongly increase in value on account of the individual licences they will shortly be issued. This will more than offset the trickle effect of a tax increase.

In other words, the new policy is a jackpot for the odious poker machine industry and they will no doubt be delighted with this fabulous return on their electoral investment.

If it’s such a glorious result for the State, why didn’t Premier Peter Gutwein release it much earlier and let the voters decide for themselves at the ballot box in May? One former head of the Tasmanian Gaming Commission believes it’s an industry-driven policy, labelling it a “dog’s breakfast” and the “worst of all worlds”.

Gambling clearly continues to have an unhealthy influence on governance in this state, where we are stuck with the worst political donation laws in the country that enable the flow of dark money to politicians.

While the legislation’s passage through the Lower House is regrettably assured, members of the Upper House must hold out for harm minimisation measures. They must insist on slower spins, $1 maximum bets, tougher fines for venues that don’t follow the rules and the removal of addictive features from poker machines.

The fallout from gambling costs the community dearly and we simply cannot afford to give away hundreds of millions of dollars in future taxes that could be used to improve our hospitals and schools.

Since the re-election of the Tasmanian Liberal Government in March 2018, losses on poker machines in the state have exceeded $500m.  In May this year alone, player losses totalled about $15.1 million or about $500,000 per day.

Australian poker machines are the most high-intensity in the world, set up to take more money per hour than anywhere else including Las Vegas. And they are concentrated in the state’s most disadvantaged areas. Indeed 60 per cent of club and hotel poker machines in Tasmania are in the 13 most socio-economically disadvantaged municipalities.  Spending on poker machines is higher in these areas, all coming from the pockets of those who can least afford it.

The bottom line is that we simply can’t allow the gambling industry to continue to dictate government policy. In the absence of harm minimisation measures, the Government needs to rip up its poker machine amendments and start again.

Published as a Talking Point in the Mercury newspaper on 10 August 2021