Friday, 30 January 2009

Golf, Pokies, Ballarat and the RSL

It is this blogger's goal to stay focused on removing children from pokie places. Sometimes the pursuit of this goal leads to consideration of unexpected issues. The 10 pokies licensed to the Ballarat RSL leads to the big issue of the role of government in Australian society.
This is a picture of the front door of the Ballarat RSL. Click on the picture to see a larger image. This is a tiny pokie venue located in the Ballarat CBD. Notwithstanding, I fail to see any of the required warnings about prohibiting entry to minors. Because the venue was closed on the Saturday I visited Ballarat I could not have a look inside. This left me to wonder (but not do anything about) whether the Ballarat RSL was doing its small part to conduct pokie gambling in a responsible manner. I was going to give the Ballarat RSL a miss.

What changed is that the Ballarat RSL has applied for a further 23 pokie licenses for a total of 33 pokies. They will no longer be a tiny venue. Given the RSL's submission to the gambling license review this might be the start of a much larger pokie palace. One can speculate that this new RSL venue could be potentially managed by Australia's pokie giant; Woolworths. A Woolworth's associate already operates the Blue Bell in Wendouree.

Here's some background: The Victorian government declared that no more pokies will be licensed to the City of Ballarat. Recent applications put to the Gambling Commission for similarly distressed areas all feature a net reduction in pokies to improve the chances of success. The Ballarat RSL's application is no different. I was informed that the 29 licenses of the Buninyong Golf Club will cease if the Ballarat RSL's application succeeds. The result? A net reduction of 6 licenses in the City of Ballarat.

On the surface, this transfer and consequent reduction seems to be a good thing. Scratch that surface and its a bad thing.

What will happen is that pokies will be moved from a wealthier area to a poorer area. Research shows that the people least able to afford to pokie gamble are the ones most likely to pokie gamble. This will make worse the hardship in the areas already in need of help.

No doubt, there will be arguments that the reduction in the number of pokies will lessen hardship so that the net effect for the whole of the City is beneficial given the objectives and likely outcome of this particular pokie club license. This requires examination of the mission of the RSL:
To ensure that programs are in place for the well-being, care, compensation and commemoration of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their dependants; and promote Government and community awareness of the need for a secure, stable and progressive Australia.
I do not dispute for a moment that this mission is a noble one. I will go further and say that it is an essential mission for all Australians to be responsible for the people who choose to devote their lives in military service.

Shouldn't this be a duty of our Federal government?

Why should the RSL have to stoop so low as to depend upon pokie losses in already distressed areas to perform this essential duty of care?

Unless someone in the Ballarat RSL just wants to run a big fancy pokie club. Like the palace that is the North Ballarat Sports Club.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Brisbane debates Kids and Pokie Places

The Brisbane Courier Mail published a terrific story on 24 January 2009 with the headline "Clubs told to watch parents who offload kids". Click here to read the story.

It's a short piece and well worth a read.

Even better reading is the 40 comments posted against the article. While followers of this blog will find what I posted to be 'business as usual', the comments by others provide a terrific debate on the issues of play areas for children in pokie venues.

I sent a link to the article to Michael Luscombe, CEO of Woolworths and a couple of senior executives at Wesfarmers, whose combined associates operate over 150 venues in Queensland. I hope they have the time to read it.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Colonial First State's "Un-ethical" investment

Colonial First State, one of Australia's largest investment managers is a signatory to the United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). Sounds high minded, doesn't it? But it's not.

Despite signing on to be active owners and incorporate environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) issues into their ownership policies and practices, (Principle 2), it relieves itself from extending the 'social' part of this commitment from practising ethical investment.

This could be out of date but here's a quote from a January 2008 Colonial First State document under the heading "Without making 'ethical' judgements":
"Adopting PRI does not mean that we are adopting Socially Responsible Investing (SRI). SRI generally involves the exclusion of companies based on an ethical assessment of their business operations, such as those engaged in the alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries. While we see a place in the market for funds based on an ethical investment premise, this is not the approach which our responsible investment policy will generally take. We do not aim to reduce the investment universe for our funds through ethical screening, but rather seek to play a more constructive role with all companies through the ongoing development and measurement of ESG practices."

Colonial is in the news today (click here for the story in The Australian) practising exactly what they wrote about not being bound to 'ethical' judgements. They are assisting in the raising of equity for Wesfarmers, a company which conducts pokie gambling in over 70 venues in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. Click here to see a list of their pokie pubs. Wesfarmer's pokie pubs engage in the practise of luring children into their pokie pubs. You can see for yourself by having a look at what I found during my recent observations in Brisbane.

So when you're thinking about investment with Colonial, "Responsible" may not mean "Ethical". For this blogger, it is an example of cutting fine distinctions on language and socially irresponsible.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Will the 2nd Submission get censored too?

Making submissions to government inquiries on pokies regulation is off topic for the PokieAct.org goal of making pokie places kid free. It is made even more off topic by government or industry declining to place the issue on the agenda for discussion.

Nevertheless, I have decided to work within the system, provide the best suggestions I can come up with on other pokie related matters and hope that this positive input will raise the stature of PokieAct.org so that industry and government will, eventually, act on excluding children from pokie places.

While you can read my second submission by clicking here, here is a summary of what I put forward.
  1. I stated my concerns about the censorship of my previous submission but concluded that it would not assist best practice regulation of pokies by arguing about the Department of Justice's actions at length.
  2. The 35% cap on ownership should apply not only to pubs but also to clubs.
  3. The draft bill was confusing as it seemed to allow for easy avoidance of the cap. It alaso reserved final determination of this matter to a process that excluded public input.
  4. Management agreements should be taken into account in detrmining the 35% cap. In support, I reproduced the determination of the Victorian Gaming Authority and their conclusion about:
    "the increasing trend of clubs with gaming licenses being seen as attractive investment vehicles for private investors"
  5. Management arrangements should be on the public register.
  6. The government should be applauded for adopting a process whereby bidders for future pokie enitilements will be pre-qualified .
  7. Under the heading of Local Imapct Assessments, I referred to other submissions which called upon the government to provide more certainty in the process of applying for pokie entitlements. While the provision of information was a positive step, the government has not gone far enough to provide applicants and local government a common base of information.
Adoption of suggestion 7 will go a long way in avoiding expensive adversary proceedings relating to these new entitlements. The most recent decision of the VCGR regarding Club Edgewater in the City of Footscray, released on Christmas Eve, totalled over 130 pages, took weeks to hear, involved expensive consultants, and is being appealed is an example of what could be avoided.

Now... let's see what bits of what I said above; that the Department of Justice determine that the public should not see.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

What the Justice Department didn't want you to read

Please click here to read my uncensored submission to the first round of the Gaming License Review on PokieWatch.org.

What I said was neither all that compelling nor all that controversial. It was relevant. Please make up your own mind. What the Department of Justice did not want the public to read was the facts and opinions I put forward about the conduct of Woolworths at their associated Victorian venues.

Set out below is a summary of Justice's censorship.

What was Censored
I expressed the opinion that Woolworths actual practices did not accord with the statements made by their CEO, Michael Luscombe to the 2007 Annual General Meeting of Woolworths Limited.
The Context
This was the basis for my setting forward the conclusion (not censored) that self regulation of responsible gaming practices is not effective. The opinion followed mention of my inspection of pokie venues associated with Woolworths.

What was Censored
Under the heading "Minimal Community Regard" I described the facts of Woolworths application for additional pokies at the Matthew Flinders Tavern in Chadstone. I argued that this demonstrated that they will bid aggressively for pokie entitlements under the new scheme regardless of the impact of the local community. I mentioned the enormous fiscal resources available to Woolworths.
The Department of Justice censored this recitation of facts and a statement clearly expressed to be my opinion.
The Context
These facts and my opinions were set out to support my core submissions that there is a need for:
  1. Limits on ownership and control that applies to both pubs and clubs
  2. Local Impact Assessment similiar to the existing NSW system so that applicants and regulators can proceed with certainty
What was Censored
Under the heading, "Avoidance of entitlement limits reducing competition", I stated that Woolworths or its associates have arrangements which allow them to either influence or control the operation of pokies at venues where they are not the licensee. This is a fact that is disclosed on the web site of the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation. I concluded that these arrangements might lead to an avoidance of the government's limitation on entitlements.
I also mentioned that such arrangements would defeat the government's desire to promote competition. Nothing surprising about that. If one company is associated with more entitlements there is less competition. It is a fact that Woolworths have been prosecuted for anti-competitive behaviour. I felt that it is relevant for this fact to be known if one believes that past behaviour is indicative of future behaviour. Finally I drew attention to the evidence given by Woolworths' own associate in 2006 to the Gambling License Review that these arrangements were beneficial.
The Context
These facts and the opinions I draw from these facts were included in my submission to support the real concerns behind my two principle submissions to the Review (set out above).

What was Censored
I set out the number of venues Woolworths and its associates are associated with. It was a statement of fact which I continue to believe was an accurate calculation based upon information provided by the VCGR web site. I concluded that this number exceeded the 35% cap and that there should be a divestiture prior to it putting in any bid for pokie entitlements. Consistent with my submission, I expressed the view that "associations" (a legally defined term in the Gambling Regulation Act 2003) should be taken into account.
The Context
The review allowed for submitters to provide "any other comment on the transition process". Under any reasonable consideration, my comment was relevant to this issue.

Why was I Censored? Guesses Anyone?
I was asked by a reporter why I thought my submission was censored. Even after contemplating the Department of Justice's action for some time, I am unable to come up with a justification for their actions.

The only thing I can speculate upon is that there is a sensitivity to management agreements with pokie venues. In this regard it should be noted:
  1. Woolworths have now disclosed the club venues they are associated with on their own website. Click here to have a look. While I did not check daily, this disclosure probably did not exist when the inquiry was called. If Woolies have no problems disclosing their associations, why should the Victorian Department of Justice censor reference to these agreements?
  2. The State Government Review reserved the issue of "association" in the draft bill and propose to introduce a new concept to regulate this matter. It's called a "Prescribed Connection". The context is ownership restrictions (See Paragraph 2.2.5 of the Review's own document).
The problem seems to me that the Review has not figured out what to do about management agreements and how they offer an ability to avoid ownership limitations and reduce competition. The words of the Review are "the provisions in the Exposure Draft Bill relating to ownership restrictions will be supplemented by Regulations which will be released in 2009."

The result is this important matter has not been decided by Government and will be determined without consultation. It is possible that the legislation will allow ownership limits to be avoided and competition reduced. My efforts to bring these issues to public attention through this process have been intentionally censored.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Department of Justice Blacks Out PokieAct

This is something out of a movie. The Department of Justice blacked out parts of the submission I made to a public inquiry on pokies regulation so that the public could not read what I had to say.

Here's what Victorian government censorship looks like in 2009:

Saturday, 10 January 2009

You're wrong, Mr Brumby. Admit it. And begin to lead.

Victorian Premier John Brumby made an extraordinary statement on Tuesday. It's hard to get around what the impact is upon pokie regulation let alone other issues that the Brumby government may have to deal with. Here's his statement:
"At the end of the day that's what a government's obligation is to do in these areas - it's not to make moral judgments about what's right and what's wrong and how people spend their time - that's a matter for mature adults to determine - not for government,"

"What is the responsibility of government though is to properly inform the community, give the information they require and if people do have a problem with gambling to help them get through it and that's exactly what we do."

The Premier avoids an essential point. Pokie gambling is an illegal activity. It was government that let this nasty genie out of it bottle. Having let it out, Mr. Brumby seems not to care about putting the genie back in the bottle.

Pokies are legal because the government made them legal. There would be no pokie gambling if the government did not license it. Prior to the 1990's there was no pokie gambling in Australia outside of NSW league clubs and certain casinos. The government determined the conditions to allow the pokie business to flourish not ordinary citizens.

Local councils fight against new pokie pubs and state government appointed agencies overrule them. This PokieAct blog started with the heroic fight of the Macedon Range Shire to stop pokies coming to the small town of Romsey. The over ruling of ordinary people happened again with the Western Bulldog's Club Edgewater in Footscray where the building of a bistro seems to mean more to these failed appointees than the damage the pokies will cause. The whole issue is even more insane when you consider that the Brumby government encourages and subsidises footy clubs to build more pokie clubs.

If Mr. Brumby sees that the choice to use dangerous entertainment should be to "mature adults" to decide what's right and wrong then should we look forward to him to lifting penalties on drinking and driving. Of course that's ridiculous, but, both driving and drinking are legally licensed adult activities and we don't leave people to make this "mature adult" decision. The vastness of pokie revenue has made governments blind to the consequences of the greed of pokie operators luring children into their pokie places and creating a new generation of pokie addicts. When business shows that it has no morals; it calls for a moral judgement by government.

The Victorian and other state governments did make a moral judgement in allowing pokie gambling. They made the wrong judgement. Wayne Goss, former premier of Queensland, admited his mistake in letting the pokie genie out of the bottle.

John Brumby can show true leadership with a humble admission of a wrong judgement about allowing Victorian pokie gambling. He could accompany his admission of government wrongdoing with an apology for all the harm pokies have caused. This would be a good beginning and would gain him the overwhelming approval of the 70% of his Victorian electorate who disapprove of pokie gambling.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

PokieAct v. Geelong Football Club

On Tuesday morning I was invited to speak on the Mornings programme on ABC 774. Waleed Aly was the host and Frank Costa who heads the Geelong Football Club was the other speaker. The segment was prompted by articles in the Melbourne press that morning about the rise in pokie gambling in suburban Melbourne; particularly the western suburbs. Click here to read the article as it appeared in The Australian.

Frank Costa should be applauded for agreeing to speak. As patron of Geelong's Horizon House for homeless children and other charitable works he has demonstrated a true commitment to good deeds. Both Eddie McGuire and Jeff Kennett were invited by the ABC but did not speak.

I asked Waleed to ask Mr Costa about the $8,279 spent on the Cat's interchange bench out of pokie proceeds and claimed as a community benefit by the GFC. Mr Costa's response focused on the need for the Cats to have the best facilities so they could remain competitive in the AFL. He also talked about player involvement in the community as if it were some sort of charity effort rather than plain good business.

As mentioned in my previous blog, I would have also liked to ask him to substantiate the community benefit of the $1,821 recently spent on the Executive Suite. To this I would have added the $3,376 spent on the Player's Walk, the $2,854 spent on the Fred Flanagan Room and the $10,096 spent on unspecified furniture.

Mr. Costa was asked about his level of comfort in building sporting success on the back of something as socially destructive as gambling. His response follows:
"If I was a benevolent dictator, which I'm not, I would probably ban cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling off the face of Australia because I think those three do a lot of harm as I go through society and I see the aftermath. However, because its a free country and we're allowed to do those things, then the best way to operate them is to control them as well as you can. And I know we were invited by a particular shire to come in and put in our operation similar to Club Cats in Geelong because they would prefer to have a sort of poker type operation conducted by a well organised run football club than a hotel. And I can understand that. And they say we have to have one in our area, we don't want more than one, we have to have one, we'd rather have a football club run it than a hotel. That made sense to me and I think we have something the public want."
Mr Costa was then cut off due to time limitations. You can listen to the whole 8 minute segment here:

This is an extraordinary answer and displays an absence of moral judgement by Mr Costa as well as an absence of candor.

Firstly, Mr. Costa believes that if a business is legal then he should be in it no matter the social consequences of the business.

Secondly, the Wyndham council opposed the Cat's application for a pokie club at Point Cooke. The Council submission was that what was said according to Mr Costa was not authorised and certainly not endorsed by Council. For Mr Costa to bring this up again is disingenuous at best. The 7 January 2009 issue of The Age reported upon the opposition of the Wyndham Council confirming that there should be no more pokies in the City.

With an operating profit of $1.4 million, Cats members are entitled to question the need for this further investment in pokies. The location of the Point Cook pokies next to kid's sporting fields and the intended presence of Geelong players at this pokie club sets an example that the Geelong Cats endorse pokie gambling as an acceptable lifestyle practice rather than the harmful product that research proves again and again.

The last question I would have liked to ask Mr. Costa is whether he will show any moral judgement at all and make his new Point Cooke pokie club kids free - or - will he embark upon the business-as-usual policy of luring families with children into his pokie club and encourage a new generation of pokie addicts?

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Ignorance + Naivety = Bad Direction

Victorian Minister for Gaming, Tony Robinson, has displayed his ignorance and naivety in an undated but letter that has been forwarded to me. The inevitable result is poor direction on the issue of the luring of children into pokie pubs and clubs. Here's what he said:
"It is also essential to recognise that clubs, hotels and the casino offer valuable non-gambling services. Gaming venues provide a variety of social, sporting, tourism and cultural infrastructure, such as sports facilities, live entertainment, dining amenities and meeting spaces. Prohibiting minors altogether from these venues would deny young people and families the opportunity to take advantage of the wealth of community services and facilities available."
Ignorance

Obviously, the Minister has never looked at PokieWatch.org. This is excusable. What is inexcusable is that he has not read his own department's publicly available information disclosed in the Community Benefit Statements published online by the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation.

These statements seem intended to publicly disclose what the club is actually doing for the community. Remember clubs get relief from the requirement to pay an 8% levy into the community benefit fund because they are ploughing back their takings into the community.

Anyone can have a look by clicking here, selecting a year and then skimming down the page to find your favourite club and see what they are doing to plough back their pokie takings.

I think you'll find a lot of 'taking' and not much 'ploughing'.

I have already blogged on the Collingwood Football Club's promise to send $1.45 million back to the Caroline Springs community (home of The Club) in 10 years and how far away they are from even coming close after three years.

There's more of this abuse of the Victorian government's subsidy for their pokie operations. Let's confine ourselves to this year's grand finalists.
To put it gently, it is a mis-characterisation to call these expenditures valuable non gambling services or cultural infrastructure.

Naivety
Free food, free playgrounds and free entertainment is not provided as a community service. These are lures to get families inside and expose them to the real earnings engines of these venues. The earning engines are the pokies and the more they are played by a wider group of people the more money for the club or pub.

Bad Direction
Encouraging exposure of a new generation of children to pokie gambling is plainly bad direction perpetuating the worst aspects of pokie gambling.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Why comment?

One of my 2009 aspirations is to try and comment on every pokie news story published. The goal is that the comment will somehow advance the PokieAct.org objective of making pokie places kid free. I have been both frustrated and pleased with the reaction so far.

In every instance I seek to express my opinion based upon fact. I restrain myself from name calling although calling people names is a lot of fun.

Frustrated
I posted Eddie McGuire's actual words from the Collingwood football club's annual general meeting on the Extreme Black and White bulletin board which relates to all things Collingwood. My post was removed after being up for about an hour and eliciting two comments both of which called me names.
I people should know that it might be considered click fraud (click here to see the Wikipedia definition) for Eddie to urge 'Pie's members to:
"do me a favour, is to click onto the website, click on few pages, even if you reckon it is no good, because we get money by the click. So you can sit there looking out the window, just click away, click away, keep going, click on, click on, click on, pages watched, all that, click it away, maybe getting RSI from putting it on."

At the least, this suggestion reflects poor judgement on Eddie's part. Bringing up stuff like this adds weight to my view that Eddie's judgement is also poor in using the club's membership to promote a pokies business that exposes children to pokie gambling.

Pleased
The Melbourne Herald Sun posted my comment which contained my take on Eddie's AGM performance. Although one can no longer see the post, it did provoke follow-up comment. The post got picked up by Google News searches. It was also picked up by Margaret Simons' own blog.

Frustrated
To accompany the release of information about the highest earing pokie pubs in NSW, Tim Vollmer wrote an article in Sydney's Daily Telegraph about his experience in losing $50 on the pokies concluding:
"I had nothing to show for my time but a sore back, a headache and a suspiciously light wallet. I'm still not willing to say pokies should be banned, but I can guarantee that I will find a better way to spend New Year's Day next year."

I posted the following comment:
"Mr. Vollmer's article, like his pokie playing experience is a selfish waste. He went to see whether the pokie experience turned him on rather than getting to the difficult issues.
During 2008, I also put my money where my mouth is and made hundreds of visits to pokie pubs. Instead of experiencing whether the pokies "did it" for me, I used my time to see whether Woolworths, Australia's largest pokie operator, was doing what they said for people who, unlike Mr. Vollmer, feel compelled to spend another $50 on the pokies. At the low end of the pokie clubs and pubs estimates, there are some 300,000 Australians who have this compulsion and this does not include their affected families.
Mr. Vollmer has the same, "I can't figure it out so let's trivialise it" attitude that many apply to people who can't stop with one drink, one cigarette, or their first hit of meth amphetamine. It is wasteful to imply if an experience does not apply to me so why should I care.
Tim starts to get to the real issue when he observes the loneliness of this 'entertainment'. There’d be insight if he wrote about the experience of the people who work at the NSW Gambling G-Line telephone service trying to cure this form of addictive behaviour.
And what did I find in my pokie pub experiences? In my view; few, if any, pubs that consistently complied with their own statements of how the set up of their pokie rooms would help a person with a pokie problem to help themselves."
Not published.

Pleased
The Adelaide Advertiser published an editorial stating that Senator Nick Xenophon "has let the issue of the damaging impact of poker machines slip under the radar" and stating that:
"It is vital people be well informed about just what they are letting themselves in for if they take on the pokies."

Their website Adelaide Now published my comment about their lack of coverage of a national conference then being held in Adelaide let alone the results of PokieWatch.org's inspection of Woolworths' and Coles' pokie venues in the Adelaide. You can read my comments here.

Conclusions?
Based upon which comments got published and which did not it would seem that people (except for Magpie's fans) love to read things that Eddie McGuire says - and - the editor of News Limited's news web site in Adelaide is more open to criticism than the Sydney editor.

Or you can also conclude that my comments were simply not that interesting.