Monday, 29 September 2008

Let's go straight to the top!

Read the letter below from the Chairman of the VCGR. Its about legal rules, signs, Gaming Machines, and where those signs should be placed. You can click on it to see an larger image.

I believe that Victorian law requires them to be on the Gaming Machine and not the Top Box. The VCGR does not agree. They say that when the law talks about the "Gaming Machine" it includes the Top Box too. I think putting signs on the Top Box does not meet the legal .

Have a look at these diagrams reproduced from the Victorian Gambling Regulations Regulations (no misprint - these are the Regulations of the Regulations!)

The first one shows a Gaming Machine with a Top Box attached.

The next one shows a Gaming Machine without a top box.

It seems to me, looking at these two diagrams, that the Gaming Machine and the Top Box are two different things. Therefore, putting a sign on the Top Box is not the same as putting a sign on the Gaming Machine.

So what's the point about these signs and what do they say?

It all relates to the legal requirement (Regulation 17) that every Gaming Machine has to have a sign on it. These signs warn gamblers about problem gambling issues. They are intended to minimize the harm caused by problem gambling. Common sense says put them where the gambler will see them the most.

Common sense says that placing these signs at the top of the Top Box so that the gambler sees them a lot less is simply wrong.

While Mr. Dunn is correct in pointing out that these diagrams do relate to another regulation about where the electronic clock should be, the regulation about the signs says nothing other than place them on the Gaming Machine. So these diagrams are the only and the best guide to placing them so that the send their message as best as they can.

I spent today trying to figure out how I can get an umpire to review Mr. Dunn's wrong decision. Don't have an answer yet but I'll post when I do.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Why do we need to know who's running the shop?

Last Monday, 22 September, in this blog, I posted the letter I received from the Minister for Gaming refusing my request to disclose information about who manages a number of pokie venues in Victoria. His reason? That these agreements were "commercial".

It is my intention to lodge a Freedom of Information action against the Minister. The only reason I have not done so yet, is that I am also asking the Gambling Commission for the same information. I'm hoping that the Commission acts sensibly.

As soon as the details are received, I will post the lot on this blog.

In the meantime, here's 6 reasons why its in the public interest to see who is actually managing Victoria's pokie venues;

1. Management agreements are now the subject of public inquiry pursuant to the Victorian Department of Justice’s Gambling Licenses Review. The issue is already of public concern.

2. The issue is the subject of public consideration. It was reported in 22 May issue of Melbourne's Herald Sun as follows:
"Gaming Minister Tony Robinson has revealed the government is investigating laws to prevent Mr. Mathieson from owning or managing more than 35% or 4813 of the state’s pub pokies beyond 2012.
The powerful hotel baron who now controls 6768 machines in partnership with supermarket giant Woolworths, will also be stopped from owning managing or associating himself with pokies in sporting and community clubs.
… [a spokeswoman for Mr. Robinson] said the Government was also exploring measures to prevent hoteliers from entering into management arrangements with club ventures."
The Minister’s spokeswoman has indicated that club venue entitlements for gaming machines will only be available to bona fide, not for profit clubs. An agreement whereby a 3rd party might directly or indirectly gain income from such an entitlement may be contrary to that intention.

3. The discussion paper for the Gambling Licenses Review stated that it adheres to the highest standards of probity. It also stated that the Government is “committed to further consultation with industry, community, and other stakeholders”. So that there can be effective consultation on this issue rather than speculative argument, the nature of all management relationships must be known.

4. Both the Footscray Football Club and the Hawthorn Football club have sought either the transfer or the grant of pokie venue licenses. In other pokie premises licensed to these clubs, they are both are associated with the Safeway/Woolworths group of associates. It is relevant for the Gambling Commission to consider the suitability of the applicant if that applicant intends to delegate its duty to implement and conduct responsible gambling practices to another company. This becomes crucial if that company seems unable to conduct responsible gambling practices at premises owned, managed or associated with it.

5. The goals of the Victorian Government as set out in the media release of the Premier Brumby. In that document, the Minister for Gaming stated that decisions had been made for a particular system
“to deliver a gaming industry which will:
  • Be more connected to local communities
  • Have more diversity of ownership; and
  • Deliver greater competition”
If the operations of clubs and hotels are being managed by one organization, this would have the effect of reducing competition. Woolies' associates, ALH, gave evidence on 26 July 2006:
  • Their view was “that the only restrictions on ownership should be those governed by the ability of the venue operator to meet compliance procedures” This view of effectively unrestricted ownership is contrary to Government policy.
  • ALH also stated that clubs would benefit “by having expert management and large group synergies”. “Large group synergies” erode rather than encourage competition.
6. On 7 September a young man tragicly died as a result of a bashing outside of a Woolworths associated pub. It was the second death in 15 months outside this pub:
  • The Assistant Commissioner of Police stated, “They (ALH) have got to look at this. It’s the second major offence that has occurred on their premises and they’ve got to clean up their act”
  • The boss of ALH, Bruce Mathieson's reaction? "We're not to blame".
If Woolworths is conducting business in Victoria in a manner that is contrary to the stated goals of the Government and therefore the public interest, it is in that interest to be aware of the particulars of that conduct.

A letters setting all of this out was sent to Michael Luscombe, CEO and Managing Director of Woolworths on 6 August and 10 September.

Reaction?

Silence.



Friday, 26 September 2008

What's with PokieWatch.org? PokieAct explained.

On Wednesday afternoon and evening I returned to the activity that has consumed my time since March of this year. That's looking and recording what I see at the Victorian pokie venues associated with Woolworths.

The point PokieWatch.org is trying to prove is; if people have a look at what happens inside these places, note down what they see, and record it publicly; then that process, of itself, will improve responsible pokie gambling practices. Since I started doing this back in March, things have gotten better; but slowly.

I started the PokieAct blog because PokieWatch.org is intended to be objective. PokieAct is not.

So here's some opinions about the 6 venues I visited on Wednesday.

2 of those venues are located in strip shopping centres; The Plough in Mill Park and the Bundoora Hotel in Bundoora. Placement of pokie rooms in strip malls is now prohibited under local town planning regulations. If someone wanted to establish these pokie rooms today; it would never happen.

Another venue involved the issue of who runs what.

The Diamond Creek Tavern was recently reported to have been sold by the Collingwood Football Club along with The Beach in Albert Park. No record of the sale appears on the VCGR web site. I had a look at the Diamond Creek because it seems from the VCGR records that Woolworths is an approved associate. I simply wanted to know if Woolies was, indeed, running the pokie room. This way, I could see if they were responsible for doing a good job or not. Yet when I looked at the specifics on the VCGR web pages, this did not seem to be the case.

This was one of the questions I put to the VCGR, that the Minister refused to answer. Seemed innocent to me. Have a look at my post (below) for 22 September. I have not given up yet on this one and will keep you posted.

Finally, I visited two stand alone venues; the Eltham Hotel and the Cherry Hill Tavern. They fit the criterion for what might be a good location for pokie parlours. Neither are in malls nor are they too far away from an established shopping or social centre. The term used to describe their location is "Destination" gambling.

The truly disturbing thing I saw is the way Woolies lures kids into the world of pokies and introduces them to the concept of an easy coin operated win.

At the Eltham, you can see some video I took looking at the machines Woolies puts into the play areas tied to this pokie pub and the absence of adults. At the Cherry Hill, they have a machine called "A Winner Every Time" placed and targeted at children in the play area. At the Cherry Hill, the noise and sights of the pokie room is continually present while you and the family eat. At the Eltham there's a big sign and an open doorway leads to the pokie area when the family enters the pub.

This is nasty.

Keeping kids out of pokie places is ultimately what the PokieAct blog is about.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

What got left out after 6 days of Romsey

Despite expensive consultants, a lot of statistics and learned arguments from Queens Counsel, who wins in Romsey will come down to factors that Justice Bell carried into the hearing before he heard a word of evidence.

Is he pro-development? A growth at any cost kinda guy?

Or a Let's-Keep-Things-As-They-Are reactionary?

If he's the former; Jim Hogan triumphs. The latter, the Macedon Ranges might just stay as they are for a few more years.

I still have two questions that remain unanswered;
  • Why didn't Jim's track record in honouring his promises in Wallan surface? He said he was going to build some motel units. He didn't. He indicated that there had been some sporting donations implying that they might continue. Further donations don't show up on the VCGR public records. He said that the gaming room would be discrete portion of the hotel which those attending the hotel for other social purposes will have no occasion to visit. It's not. Just have a look at this picture of the car park entrance to his Wallan Hotel where the entrance is shared by the bistro and the pokie room.
  • There was a fair bit of discussion today on whether His Honour could grant this application conditionally upon Jim Hogan completing the improvements. After all, the improvements to the Romsey pub, not the pokies, were what this application seemed to be about. The Shire' lawyers said he couldn't. Jim's lawyers said you could. The VCGR lawyers said nothing. No one mentioned that on 12 August, the VCGR released their Langwarrin decision where they did precisely that.
Finally and for me, most importantly, no one mentioned that Wallan and Romsey are not the same kind of towns. Wallan is just off the four lane Hume Highway. Romsey is a country town, up a two lane road. Maybe the people in Romsey moved and stayed there just for that reason.

Maybe they want to keep it that way. There's plenty of other places to live, like Wallan, where there is a shopping mall, alfresco dining and pokies nearby. Instead of transforming it into a Melbourne suburb, maybe His Honour should just keep Romsey as the country town that it is.

Someone has to draw a line somewhere.

Monday, 22 September 2008

"Commercial Matters" - Transparency? Anyone?


You would have thought that I was asking for a secret formula developed after years of costly research instead of something so small. Check out the garbage knock back I received from Minister for Gaming, Tony Robinson scanned just above. Click on the image if you want the big view.

Who is this all about?

Certain clubs (and some companies) in Victoria and their relationship to the supermarket giant Woolworths. The clubs are:
  • Aces Sporting Club (Melbourne Storm)
  • Collingwood Football Club
  • Footscray Football Club
  • Hawthorn Football Club
  • Manningham Club
  • Port Melbourne Giants Basketball Club
  • Richmond Football Club
What exactly did I ask for?

Here's my 3 questions:
  1. Is there a management agreement in place?
  2. What is the name of the management company?
  3. While I made no request to see the actual agreement, I wanted to know what the duties and responsibilities of the manager with respect to each venue.
I'm happy to email anyone the text of my letter to the Gambling Commission. Just email me at PokieWatch@yahoo.com and it's on its way.

Why do I think the public should know?

The venues associated with Woolworths amount to over 40% of all pokie hotels in Victoria. The public seems to be under the impression that these venues belong to Bruce Mathieson when, in most instances they belong to an entity 75% owned by Woolies. With it's enormous financial clout, Woolies could end up managing most every Victorian pokie club or pub.

The public should know who is really running the show.


Sunday, 21 September 2008

Consulting Missteps and Authentic Happiness

Back in the 1970's, when I was an articled clerk in Western Australia fresh out of law school, my principal instructed me to prepare cases so that all issues were out in the open and dealt with. Surprise was a junk strategy. Don't assume the opposition are dumb and won't get to all the points of argument.

Dr. Kerkin of Coomes Consulting would be wise to follow this advice. In these days where consultants have become advocates, decent cross examiners study what they say to reduce the impact of the consultant's conclusion. To assume that Mr. Tweedy, counsel for Jim Hogan, the applicant for the pokie licenses in Romsey, is not decent, is plain wrong and weakens the otherwise strong points made by her report and testimony.

Dr. Kerkin gave evidence of the balance of good and bad in granting the pokie licenses to the Romsey Hotel. Her conclusion seemed to be that the bad outweighed the good. Given her considerable qualifications, you would think she weighed all the 'good' against all the 'bad'. She might have... but she did not put it in her report.

What she forgot to mention is that some people like to gamble on the pokies and that having pokies in Romsey instead of having to drive to another pokie venue is a benefit to these people. Mr. Tweedy said that for them it was a "recreational activity like going to the movies or having a meal". Playing the pokies was an activity from which they gained pleasure. Why shouldn't it be conveniently placed?

She should have dealt with that point.

Here's one uncomplicated way Dr. Kerkin might have balanced the convenience factor. Playing the pokies is not a recreational activity like going to the movies or having a meal. It is an illegal and potentially harmful activity where it's conduct is regulated by the Government. It's not at all like going to the movies or having a meal. It's more like buying cigarettes, drinking alcohol, betting on the nags, or going to a brothel. All these recreational activities, just like pokies, are illegal unless licensed or restricted to adults.

Convenience must be balanced with the nature of the activity. If all that mattered were convenience than why not a brothel on every corner or a pokie in every fish and chip shop and newsagent? That sure would be convenience. Just think how the Victorian Community Support Fund would grow with the additional pokie taxes. It's also plainly wrong.

Dr. Kerkin also got a little lost by extending her expertise to trying to define the psychological concepts of 'happiness' and 'contentment'. She need not have gone further than the well-known grammar school located close to where she works. Geelong Grammar is conducting a pioneering and world recognised trial in teaching authentic happiness amongst its students. Click here to read about it. The study of what makes people happy was also a cover story in Time magazine. One of the points to emerge from these studies is how authentic happiness sources from doing good for a larger social cause.

Authentic happiness is a lot more than buying a new handbag. It is certainly not the lonesome activity of pressing a button every 2.4 seconds on a pokie.



Thursday, 18 September 2008

Justice Bell Delivers. Guess who went AWOL?

Day 4 of the Romsey hearing started poorly.

The court heard more from Mr. Whitehead of Tattersall's. But not too much on the grounds that it would be 'commercially sensitive' - the catch-all excuse not to publicly debate something that might be really embarrassing. The court also heard that one of his underlings put forward a revenue model to the Romsey hearing of 2005 despite the admission by Mr. Whitehouse that he had doubts about the model Tatt's were suggesting as good evidence.

Mr. Whitehouse should never play Texas Hold 'Em. That soft voice is a dead giveaway.

Then it got a lot better.

The morning shift ended with an insightful discussion between Justice Bell and counsel for the Gambling Commission after the commission presented its very scanty case.

His Honour again reminded the Commission about the guidance given to it in the Supreme Court decision and how the Commision's counsel should have been instructed to present a view. What followed was a terrific discussion between the Commission's counsel and His Honour on the points applicants and objectors should prepare and present in any pokie application.

All the applicable phrases in the gambling laws were dissected. The questions Justice Bell asked and the observations he made were most valuable given the weight of his judgement as a member of the Appeals Tribunal charged with reviewing the Commission's decisions.

And who came but left before the substance? If you've read any of the previous posts, you've guessed it by now.

The boss. Ian Dunn, Chairman, Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation.

What he missed was a discussion on how to properly weigh the net benefits and negative effects that the introduction of pokies might have on a community. The benefit of having a pokies parlour in Romsey, the extra employment, the donations to sporting clubs and the improved amenity were all noted. The negatives of the possibility of problem gambling and pokie expenditure above state averages were noted.

Most important was the lengthy discussion about the introduction of pokies into Romsey being "so disconcerting that it would have a negative effect on the community" And finally what I perceived to be an observation from Commission's counsel that consistent with the original findings of the Commission, the findings of the Supreme Court and the evidence before the Tribunal at this hearing, years later, Romsey still finds it so.

Too bad Mr. Dunn wasn't there to even listen.




Wednesday, 17 September 2008

You show me yours but I won't show you mine

Talk about the lack of a level playing field. Some players in the Romsey pokies case have all the information and others are just left to guess.

The afternoon of Day 3 was warmed up by two members of the Romsey community procured by the applicant Hogan. The first witness might have been a bit of a "whoops" when he conceded that he would prefer that the improvements would be made to the Romsey Hotel without the pokies. The second thought that pokies would be the best thing that ever happened to Romsey as it would bring the town up to par with everywhere else. Another die-hard observer sitting next to me whispered maybe that's why people chose to live in small town Romsey because its not like everywhere else.

Then the floodgates of statistical information were opened wide by the witness employed by Tattersall's, Mr. Whitehouse. I gathered that he ran a division that figured out whether Tatt's should invest in one area or another. To do this they hired a firm that put together a statistical model that showed what the likely income would be.

Romsey must have measured up. The problem with the evidence is that it measured up too well.

Counsel for the Shire opposing the application stated to the His Honour that this evidence was relevant to the finding of 'net economic benefit'. If the pokies drew more money out of the town than it was putting back, the pokie application must get a knock back.

So Mr. Whitehouse had to do a balanced show and tell. First he had to show that his model gave good information. His 'tell' was that the results would be OK enough so Hogan would be able to make good on his promises of employment, donations to local sporting groups, and improved facilities (even tho' he seems not to have made good on all his Wallan promises). Finally Mr. Whitehouse had to tell the Tribunal that the money sucked out of town would not be too great so as to screw the Romsey economy. A paper called "Gaming 101" was procured.

The core value of these projections are based upon actual pokie turnovers at Tatt's pokies. Is anyone else allowed to see these stats? Not the Shire. Not the public sitting in the gallery.

Who?

The Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation. And they aren't showing anything yet.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

All the old dudes & dudettes who carry the news

Once upon a time I thought that experts were meant to be professionals who provided pure evidence untainted by bias. Having listened to three of them today give evidence on behalf of the applicant for the pokie license in Romsey, I'm not so sure anymore. They all thought that 30 pokies in the Romsey Hotel was a grand idea... same as the guy paying their fees.

No doubt over the next few days, I'll listen to the experts from the Macedon Ranges who will likely find that 30 pokies in Romsey is a terrible idea. I'm also sure that the judicial process will benefit by the competing factual scenarios being presented. Then the nine lawyers sitting at the bar table will argue about the size of the holes each of them have blown in the other's 'facts' and the process will be assisted again.

But I'm not so sure about three of those lawyers; the three that represent the Gaming Commission. Remember that it is their decision that is being appealed against at this hearing.

While the question they asked about disadvantaged Romsey people was a great one, (it was answered by Hogan's expert by her attacking the Shire's expert) the public is not well served by how little stuff is presented by the Commission. Especially when you believe that they possess the info on how much is spent on pokies at each pub or club and could put together an index showing which communities are more likely to produce pokie addicts and which one's are not.

It's not such a crazy idea that they could do a PokieWatch themselves and post online what they see inside each venue.

Justice Bell is doing a PokieWatch tomorrow morning at Wallan (one of Hogan's other pokie pubs) and Romsey itself. It's great that he's going to have an official look. All the lawyers get to go too. Consistently, the Commission isn't going.

Click here to have a look what I saw when I went to Wallan. I wrote to Mr. Hogan just after I posted the web page of what I saw. I asked him to correct anything that he thought was inaccurate. This included some observations comparing what he promised the Gambling Commission he was gunna do and the news on what he actually did.

No surprise that this was an old dude that I did not hear from.

Romsey Resurrected and the PokieAct Blog Begins

The small Victorian country town of Romsey (Population about 4,500) is the home of the longest sustained effort to bring pokies to a community that doesn't want them.

Back in 2004, the Hogan hotel group applied for 30 pokie licenses. The Victorian Gambling Commission knocked them back. Hogan appealed to the Victorian Administrative Tribunal and won. The local Shire of Macedon Ranges appealed to the Supreme Court of Victoria who also knocked back the Hogan's pokies.

Fast forward to 2008 and Hogan is at it again. The Tribunal hearing started about a half hour late. There were 9 lawyers at the head table most of whom wanting to trash the past.

The Supreme Court made it clear that the community's feelings about pokies was important and the Gambling Commission needs to defend its findings when they are being appealed against. None of this seemed to matter.

In the first few minutes the Commission indicated that it was only going to help update evidence. Justice Bell politely asked them if they had read the Supreme Court decision.

Hogan's expert witness dissed all the surveyed views of Romsey community opposing pokies as something emotional that they might grow out of over time.

Justice Bell pondered a vision of how an estimated $13.5 million would be spent on 30 pokies in the Romsey pub in a year and what this might do to the well being of a town with two petrol stations, two banks, two supermarkets two cafes and a skate park.

Welcome to the pokie world.