Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The pokie purveyors respond

David Lalor, president of ClubsACT writes in todays Canberra Times:

Recent articles in The Canberra Times report that clubs have been asked to ''dump pokies'' by Lifeline and a leading representative of the Catholic Church. Yet Lifeline has indicated to us that they did no such thing and in a subsequent radio interview the Catholic clergyman put a very different slant on matters than was attributed to him.

Most recently economics editor Peter Martin has posed some questions to the Chief Minister ''suspecting'' that the claimed lack of action on harm minimisation and reducing poker machines is related to funding the ALP receives from the Labor Club...

I can only shake my head in disbelief when I read comments claiming the ACT Government has taken no action to reduce problem gambling because of its relationship with the Labor Club. They ignore the Stanhope Government's decision, in the face of enormous pressure, to refuse privateers into gaming in the ACT, thus keeping them out of taverns, hotels and the casino. Governments in most other jurisdictions have been unable to resist this pressure the consequence being an ''explosion'' in gaming activity, taxation receipts and individual wealth.

One only needs to look at gaming revenue growth during the past decade in NSW to see that clubs have a more moderating influence and do not push gaming to the extent of the privateers.

There might be more machines per head in the ACT, but the per capita spend is less than NSW. Based on recent information, including machines in casinos our spend is probably less than Victoria, Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia where gaming is now firmly in the grip of privateers. Also gaming machines are not on every street corner or in your face they are in licensed clubs, where in many cases they have been for almost 30 years.

This controlled access, together with a range of harm minimisation measures introduced by the ACT Government (machine cap, trading hours, responsible service of gaming and alcohol, mandatory Gambling Code of Practice, and a new Gaming Machine Act 2004) puts paid to any claim that the Government is shirking its responsibilities. We have had two increases in gaming taxes 8 per cent in 2003/04 and 17 per cent from July 2007 so much for the lack of action on this front! Clubs are required by law to spend 7 per cent of gaming revenue on community contributions, but most clubs spend much more the highest in Australia.

Clubs do not take the privilege of providing gaming services for granted and in return they expect to be able to offer a legitimate and legalised form of entertainment to the community. Many Australians like to play poker machines and 99 per cent of these do so with total care and responsibility. For a small number of people gambling can be a serious problem that is why clubs accept the need for greater regulatory accountability and transparency.

We have worked closely with ACT Governments and Lifeline Canberra to bring about even more responsible gambling practices and to deliver a gaming environment that is the envy of other states. This has been at some cost gaming revenue in 2006/07 was the lowest for five years, and it could be even lower in 2007/08.

Much of the recent comment has been opinion and exaggeration presented as fact. It is misleading for those so called ''gambling experts'' to quote from an eight-year-old Productivity Commission report, especially as more recent studies show substantially different findings.

Unfortunately this media focus creates an erroneous view of the work of not-for-profit clubs.With 33 club groups operating from 56 venues around Canberra, employing 2000 people and a membership base of 500,000, it is an indisputable fact that clubs play a significant role in the Canberra community be it in sport, recreation, entertainment and community support.

Since the late 1970s ACT clubs have applied the proceeds of gaming to the social good and to the provision of community and sporting infrastructure, much of which would not otherwise exist.

In 2005/06 clubs contributed $12.5million to a large number of recipients $4.5million more than required by law bringing the total contribution to $112million since 1997/98.

But these significant headline numbers understate the contribution that individual clubs make. Charities, schools, aged care, art and craft groups, regional and ethnic community services groups would not be funded if it was not for a club or the Government would have to find the funds to make up any shortfall.

Finally the call to prohibit the Labor Club from contributing to the ALP is perplexing. Clubs are established for common purposes sport, cultural, ethnic, professional and returned services interests and a constitution governs what the clubs have been set up to do. For example the Hellenic Club supports the Greek community, the Ainslie Football Club the AFL, the Vikings Group the rugby union and the Tuggeranong community, and The Canberra Southern Cross Club a range of affiliated groups. And the list goes on.

For its part the Labor Club was set up to support the ALP. There is no member outcry that funds are ''donated'' to the ALP. This is a legitimate and transparent contribution.

It is unreasonable for those (abolitionists) speaking on behalf of the minority who have a problem with gambling to paint a picture which suggests that clubs have lost their community focus.

I am sure the vast majority of Canberrans who belong to one or more of our clubs would beg to differ and agree that Jon Stanhope has nothing to explain.

David Lalor is president of ClubsACT.