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How about a pre-commitment to truth in the pokies debate?

The Coalition’s gambling paper proposes voluntary pre-commitment but misrepresents the evidence.

The Coalition last week released its Policy Discussion Paper on Gambling Reform, rejecting the government’s mandatory pre-commitment scheme on poker machines as a measure to reduce problem gambling.

Topping the list of feeble alternatives is – wait for it – a national voluntary pre-commitment program.

Other suggestions include a training model for gambling industry employees to identify problem gamblers, similar to the Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate and a “self-exclusion” program, where problem gamblers could restrict their access to gambling venues.

In true Sir Humphrey style, the Coalition has also set up a Working Group to consider community and gambling industry responses to policy options. The group will report back to the Opposition leader at the end of February 2012.

It’s hard not to be cynical about the Coalition’s simple poker-machine strategy, which goes something like this: signal your opposition to mandatory pre-commitment; don’t put up a precise alternative, but call for a policy discussion; set up a committee; and finally, use the committee to ventilate the views of the gambling industry and other opponents of the Wilkie reforms.

The paper is full of thinly-disguised policy ventriloquism. As it did with the climate-denial rallies at Parliament House, the Coalition seems to be saying to the gambling industry, “speak through us”.

It outlines concerns that a mandatory pre-commitment scheme would damage revenue and it claims the closure of clubs would tear the social fabric of affected communities.

The Coalition has a poker machine strategy but no policy yet. AAP

Evidence and misinformation

In February 2010, the Productivity Commission released a systematically researched 1100-page report recommending mandatory pre-commitment.

Andrew Wilkie used the Commission’s report, and its wording, as the basis for his negotiations and agreement with Julia Gillard to form government. And any pre-commitment legislation would likewise draw on what the Commission found.

The Coalition paper doesn’t acknowledge the Productivity Commission recommendation for mandatory pre-commitment. Rather, it attributes this idea to Wilkie, Gillard and the Joint Select Committee.

Even worse than that, it presents the Commission as a supporter of voluntary pre-commitment:

“The Productivity Commission recommended that:‘… a partial pre-commitment system should allow players to set spending limits in all venues within a jurisdiction, and to see their transaction histories, but with enrolment in the system being voluntary, so that there would be no requirement that people have a card or identification device.’”

What? Did the Commission really say that?

Well, no, not in that form. Those three little dots, the ellipsis, distort what it really said.

Here’s what the Commission actually recommended:

“Each state and territory government should implement a jurisdictionally-based full [i.e. mandatory] pre-commitment system for gaming machines by 2016 …

"In advance of implementation of full pre-commitment, state and territory governments should implement a partial [i.e. voluntary] pre-commitment system by 2013, where they have compatible gaming machine monitoring systems and associated gaming machines, or other low cost ways of delivering such pre-commitment.

"Such a partial pre-commitment system should allow players to set spending limits in all venues within a jurisdiction, and to see their transaction histories ….”

Voluntary pre-commitment, then, was a just question of jurisdictional timing. The Commission recommended mandatory pre-commitment and against voluntary pre-commitment. Why?

In the Commission’s words, under a voluntary program, “gamblers are not bound by the limits they impose on themselves in such a system. In effect, partial pre-commitment would give Ulysses a knife to cut his bonds when the Sirens call.”

In other words, pre-commitment maximises rationality in this decision-making process.

$1 bets would restrict losses to around $120 an hour. AAP

Policy alternative

The Coalition’s discussion paper doesn’t mention the issue of $1 maximum bets – another Productivity Commission recommendation – but the idea has been mooted as a possible alternative to Labor’s pre-commitment scheme.

Because of the level of disinformation in the community about mandatory pre-commitment, supporters of reform – including Andrew Wilkie, the Greens and Nick Xenophon – say the $1 maximum bet option might garner the necessary support for gambling reform.

Their argument is that if mandatory pre-commitment on high-intensity machines (those with average losses of about $1200 an hour) is too complicated, we should get rid of them and just have low-intensity machines (with $1 bets, $20 load-up and losses of around $120 per hour).

Eighty-eight per cent of recreational gamblers bet less than $1, so this would mostly affect problem gamblers who lose large amounts of money.

The government is yet to declare a position on $1 bets. And Tony Abbott has, incredibly, asked the government to drop its mandatory pre-recommitment scheme before the Coalition will consider the proposal.

So, what’s next for gambling reform?

There are unlikely to be any surprises when the Coalition receives its Working Group report at the end of February.

The broader answer will, in part, depend on the government’s nerve.

The $1 bet limit might help to convince the Independents. And if it’s adopted, it will be a major advance.

Wilkie, Xenophon and the Greens have strong arguments for reform, and the evidence is on their side. They have the government’s support on pre-commitment, at least.

But too much chopping and changing by the government at this late stage might be seen as lack of resolve on gambling reform.

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