Sunday, 30 August 2009

Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain

Like Dorothy being sent by the Wizard of Oz to bring back the broom of the wicked witch, at a meeting last September I too was sent on a mission by Woolworths' top executives at a meeting last November. The mission was to bring to Australia a national pokie practices standard for pokie. A standard that the Federal government and all the states agreed to. Like Dorothy's quest, it seemed impossible. But with the support of Sen Nick Xenophon and Rev Tim Costello, we did it. Now we've returned to ask Woolworths to honour that standard and here's the reception we're getting.

The adoption by Coles of the National Principles was reported in the Adelaide Advertiser in South Australia, The Courier Mail in Queensland and on the front page of all of the papers in the POST News group in Western Australia.

No Woolworths response.

Last Thursday, I reached out to Peter Horton, Company Secretary and Chief Counsel of Woolworths. Here's a copy of my email:
"Since writing to you, there have been significant developments in the measures that Wesfarmers/Coles is now prepared to undertake to minimize harm caused by pokie gambling. These measures directly address the matters raised in the 249P statement already provided to you.

You may have read the 25 August issue of the Financial Review where it was reported that Wesfarmers/Coles intend to partially sell pokie pub division. This is the action requested in paragraph 3 of the notice. It indicates a reasonable effort to comply with this request.

More significantly, Coles have emailed me indicating their commitment to the National Principles of responsible pokie gambling and other measure that go well beyond those principles. Here is a link to the Federal and State Ministers declaration that state those principles:

The first principle is:
“Minors should not be allowed to gamble or be exposed to gambling areas within venues.” (my underlining).

Any reasonable interpretation of this language signifies that it is a requirement to remove children from the sights and sounds of pokies inside the venue. Wesfarmers/Coles have indicated their written commitment to this principle and have set aside the capital to implement their commitment. As you know, this is the core point of what I have been advocating both in correspondence and before your board and shareholders.

Another principle is the prohibition of the service of alcohol to gamblers while they are at a pokie.

Set out below is the full text of Wesfarmers/Coles email to me. Please note that a virtually identical 249P statement was proposed with respect to Wesfarmers Limited. That action has now been withdrawn.

It is clear that Woolworths Limited are now both comparatively and significantly lacking in their commitment to responsible gambling practices. This fortifies the need for Woolworths to take positive action with respect to the matters set forth in the 249P statement. At the outset, such action should include publicly matching or exceeding the written undertakings made by Wesfarmers/Coles. without limitation this should include excluding children from exposure to the sights and sounds of pokies within a venue.

I have spoken with the sponsors of my endeavour, Rev Tim Costello and Sen Nick Xenophon who have indicated their agreement with the action that I suggest that Woolworths undertake. I understand that it is Messrs. Costello and Xenophon’s intention to directly reach out to Mr Luscombe with a view of Woolworths initiating positive reforms to minimise the harm of your pokie gambling interests. I respectfully ask you to recall Mr Luscombe's own commitment to take this "very very very seriously".

We all believe that Woolworths matching Wesfarmers/Coles undertaking is not only in the interests of Woolworths shareholders but also the Australian public that Woolworths is dedicated to serve.

I am informed that the typical cost of obtaining a copy of the Woolworths share registry is $200. Please advise where I can despatch such sum and obtain a copy."
The response was a solicitor's letter asking for a cheque $840 for the register. I have asked for electronic details so that I can pay the money immediately.

Sadly there was no substantive response.

Listen to the words of Michael Luscombe.

Listen to how he states without qualification that Woolworths treat their pokie gambling practices "very very very seriously". Listen to how he spruicks that "our internal covenant for that is, in fact, to take a leadership position in the area of problem gaming".
Mr Luscombe has failed as a leader. As Woolworths' CEO, Woolworths' refusal to quickly commit to and then implement the National Principles is Mr Luscombe's failure.

What now remains is whether Mr Luscombe is the good natured humbug like the Wizard of Oz who eventually makes good or can we no longer have faith in anything he says?

Friday, 28 August 2009

Coles' Pokies - The Final Chapter?

In what can only be considered as a major breakthrough in reducing the harm that pokie gambling imposes upon the Australian public, Wesfarmers / Coles have now committed to implement the National Principles without waiting for prescriptive legislation from the state and federal governments. Wesfarmers/Coles deserve praise for this progressive action.

Will Woolworths do likewise? Will the clubs, particularly in NSW, also act responsibly and implement the National Principles?

Of course, the most important matter is the Wesfarmers/Coles undertaking to comply with the first National Principle that disallows children's exposure to pokie gambling within the pokie or club.

Here's the full text of Coles' email to me:
"Since my last e mail to you, Spirit Hotels, which manages all of the Coles hotel and gaming venues in Queensland, has completed a rigorous and comprehensive review of its gaming practices and has put in place a six-step action plan to improve the way that they manage our gaming facilities.

This six-step action plan includes:

* warning signs in car parks and inside our hotel venues about the dangers of leaving children unattended in cars (these signs are based on KidsSafe signs)
* significantly enhanced car park security checks by hotels management including hourly checks and log book records that can be monitored and audited
* gaming room screening to minimise the incidental exposure of children to gaming in our hotel venues where this is currently not in place
* removal of any point of sale advertising attracting families with children to our gaming facilities
* point of sale help line material in all our hotels with gaming operations to manage problem gambling
* point of sale material to promote self exclusion in all our hotels to help manage problem gambling

Implementation of this action plan has commenced although some steps will take some time to complete including warning signs and screening. However, capital expenditure has been committed to the process and contractors appointed to complete the work in the next two months. The new Spirit Hotels management team, led by Mark Scates, are committed to this plan and are prepared to undertake random audits for internal compliance purposes.

I believe that this action plan reinforces our commitment to the National Principles for the Conduct of Responsible Gaming announced by Federal and State Ministers in June and the Queensland Responsible Gaming Code of Practice. This six step action plan goes beyond our minimum statutory compliance requirements and reflects best practice standards within the hotels and gaming industry.

The action plan meets most of the proposals you have made in several e mails to Coles and Wesfarmers to improve the management of gaming within our hotels. We remain committed to responsible gaming practices so that the patrons who use gaming facilities in our hotels can continue to enjoy the experience in an appropriate environment and that other patrons in our hotel venues who do not wish to use gaming facilities are not adversely affected.

I understand that Wesfarmers has responded separately to your proposed shareholder communications and plans to seek nomination as a Director at the forthcoming Wesfarmers Annual General Meeting."
From the standpoint of Wesfarmers' shareholders there may be even better developments coming soon. The Financial Review published this unconfirmed report of Wesfarmers / Coles beginning to exit the pokie pub business. This provides Coles with an enormous moral advantage in no longer seeking profit from pokie gambling. Click on the image below to read the reportOf course, as previously blogged, the devil is in the details. While Coles/Wesfarmers intentions are welcome, my response relates entirely to how they will implement their promises. You can click on the two images below to read my response.This closes the chapters for Wesfarmers/Coles for now. It will take them time to implement their undertakings. The focus now turns to Woolworths and the pokie clubs and this has already begun. More details in the next blog.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Coles' Pokies Part 13 - The Sundowners

The Sundowners is a classic film, nominated for 5 Oscars and produced in Australia. It was set in the 1920's and evokes "a Whole World of Adventure Comes the Rousing, Story of Real People" It is the story of Paddy and Ida. "Paddy has an almost pathological aversion to staying in any one place too long, Ida tries to save enough money for a down payment on a farm; that is, if Paddy doesn't drink or gamble away the money" according to an online review.
A perfect name and image for the Coles/Wesfarmers pokie pub in Caboolture - the rascally Aussie bloke who has a punt on the nags. Unfortunately, like the American actor Robert Mitcham's attempt at an Australian accent or the occasional release of an emu to run through the background, the reality does not measure up.

Here's the reality of how the image of this movie is used.While using the evocative image of the outback sheep shearer movin' on as the sun goes down, the entrance to the Sundowner public bar crashes back to the reality of pokie pubs in 2009 by both prohibiting children from entry while allowing them to enter with an adult.

Instead of a ewe ready to be sheared, once inside, patrons and their accompanying children encounter a lone pokie that has wandered out of the the pokie room and installed itself in the public bar. This picture destroys Wesfarmers/Coles credibility. This is not the only pub where Wesfarmers/Coles deliberately position pokies in a public bar. One of their web sites even promotes the fact that their pokies can be found in the venue's main bar. How can they make a statement that they "support" the National Principles that children are not to be exposed to pokies inside a venue, yet children are allowed, in the same room as that venue's pokies?

The truth is... they can't.

And the Sundowner is another one of their Kids Eat Free pubs actively promoting for families to bring their children along.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Can We Talk About Your Pokie Business?

Neither Woolworths nor Coles/Wesfarmers like to talk about their pokie businesses. Readers of this blog will be familiar with the effort to get a substantive response from Coles since the meeting of December last year. Similarly, there has been no response to the issues I raised at the last Woolworths Annual General Meeting. Its time to discuss pokies with the ultimate decision maker for these companies.

Click here to read and listen to the issues raised at the last Woolworths Annual General Meeting.

Yesterday, draft Section 249P statements were emailed to both Woolworths and Coles/Wesfarmers. If able to obtain 100 shareholders signatures for each notice, then these companies will be effectively required to discuss their pokie business with their shareholders, their ultimate decision makers.

These notices unashamedly go further than a mere discussion about pokies. Solutions are suggested and action is called for to get them out of this business that causes Australians so much harm. Click on the image below to have a look at the draft notice for Coles/Wesfarmers: In order for the document to be legible the file is large so please be patient as it downloads.I wrote to the contacts within both organisations to ensure that there are no "technical" problems with the processing of the 249P notices and alterations may need to be made as a result. If there is no response by Wednesday, 26 August, then I will be obliged to plough on irregardless and begin the quest for 100 shareholders of each company who want to discuss their own company's conduct of their pokie business.

Finally, Mr Hadler of Coles responded to the enclosing the draft 249P notice. He indicated he was in Perth and would discuss the matters with the Wesfarmers' Company Secretary. He also stated that he was finalising a response to "earlier email and the latest information on your blog". This is frustrating. The last few blog entries highlight events at only 4 Coles' pokie pubs when has web pages on all their South Australian pokie pubs and over 60 of their Queensland pokie pubs. I recently added about 200 pictures of their venues.

The Sitemeter reports for indicate that someone from Coles Myer spent time on the web site yesterday afternoon and last night. They looked at the home page, the web pages for Club Hotel Waterford, Cleveland Tavern and two blog pages. This is not enough.

My hope is that Coles/Wesfarmers will take full advantage of the view of their vast pokie operations that affords them. There is no need for Mr Hadler, Mr Goyder or others at Coles/Wesfarmers to drive the thousands of kilometres or spend days and nights entering data.

It's all there for them, from the comfort of their desks, to base positive steps towards reducing the harm of their pokie gambling business. All they have to do is look.

I also informed Mr Hadler that I wish to run for a directorship at Wesfarmers.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Coles' Pokies Part 12 - Kids in the Club

At 6:07 on 30 July 2009 at Coles' pokie venue the Club Hotel Waterford, I watched young child inside the pokie area with an adult. The child talked to a woman who was sitting in front of a pokie. The child then climbed up on a chair in front of a pokie as if to play. After a short time the adult man and woman left with the child.

I did not observe any staff member come up to these people to remove the child from the pokie room.

Coles' Club Hotel Waterford was the subject of the first blog about Coles' lack of responsible pokie practices. During the December 2008 visit a gambler was observed playing two pokies simultaneously. It seems to me to be a clear sign of problem gambling as the gambler seeks to gamble more frequently than one pokie will allow.

This practice is not allowed at Coles' pokie pubs in South Australia. I mentioned what I had seen to Alison Tehan at the December 2008 meeting. She is the "Licensing & Regulatory Manager" Yet this practice seems to be condoned in Coles' Queensland pokie pubs as a gambler was observed on 31 July 2009 playing two pokies simultaneously at Coles' Cleveland Tavern.

Coles also seem allow parents to leave their children unsupervised in play areas while they eat drink or gamble on the pokies despite any signs they erect. The picture of the young boy left alone at the Kings Beach Tavern is heartbreaking. During the visit to Coles Club Hotel Waterford
  1. Watched adult man come in with young boy, presumably father and son. Father left child unattended and unsupervised in play area playing video games. Father returned, with a drink, to an area in bistro where he could look into play area.
  2. An elderly couple came in with two children. Children left in play area. "Grandma" went into pokie area and inserted $10 in pokie #16. "Grandpa" sat at table with no vision of play area where the two children played unsupervised. Grandma lost her $10 and went to another pokie and inserted another $10. Child came back. Grandpa went into pokie room to get Grandma from the pokies.
At no time were Coles' pokie pub staff observed warning these adults about their unsupervised children.

Bear in mind that either the sights and sounds of pokies permeate the eating and lounge areas of Coles' Club Hotel Waterford. You can see the pokie lights along the whole length of the eating area in this picture is from the Coles' own web site:Coles stated support of the National Principles not to expose children to pokie gambling inside their pokie pubs seems to be an empty promise.

As Wesfarmers / Coles continue to refuse to substantively respond, the logical next step is to force the issue of their conduct of their pokie gambling business to debate before their shareholders. The strategy to achieve this will be set out in the next blog.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Coles' Part 11 - Mihi Tavern

The incident where an infant child was left in a locked car while his father gambled on the pokies re-invigorated the effort to raise the level of responsible pokie practices at Coles / Wesfarmers.
Click here to read the story. Readers may recall that 6 months earlier I had suggested that Coles place warning signs in their car parks that may have averted that tragedy and never even got the courtesy of a substantive response.

Therefore having a look at the Mihi Tavern was a priority for the Queensland Coles' pokie pubs I intended to visit. I was interested in:
  1. Whether there were places where signs could be erected in the car park that would be easily visible
  2. How hard would it be to get the attention of all patrons inside the venue

As you can see, there are existing dividers in the car park where signs can be placed on posts. There are even existing light poles. And the venue does not have a multitude of entrances. There is a portable sign in the entrance promoting the venue's trading hours. There's no warnings about leaving children in cars.

If Wesfarmers / Coles were a caring company, this would have been easy. Based upon this aspect of the danger inherent in their quest for pokie profits, clearly they are not a company that cares.

Now let's go inside to see whether this pokie pub was a warren of little rooms where patrons could be difficult to find or one big room. It will also say something about whether their stated support of the National Principles for the conduct of responsible gaming machine activity has any substance.The answer is the eating area, lounge bar and pokies room is one big area. The inspection reveals that there is a seperate sports bar. So, its two rooms.

The Queensland gambling authority has a web site with the title "Is your local venue committed to responsible gambling?" and the first sub heading is "How can you tell if your local venue is implementing the Code of Practice?" In the paragraph about Venue Environment it states:
"You might hear announcements about other activities or letting you know the time."
So if the Mihi was a responsible venue and Coles / Wesfarmers were implementing the Code of Practice then they would have a public address system. By using this public address system it would have been easy for them to alert all their patrons that a child had been left in a car.

If the reporter's story is correct then why then did it take the police to come before the child's father was found?

Finally, how is Coles/Wesfarmers doing on their responsibility to not allow children to be exposed to gambling within the Mihi?

Children eating at the Mihi have exposure to pokie sights and sounds upon entry, while eating and via clear glass walls, in the play area. The Crusin' coin operated video game has been placed less than 10 steps from the pokie room entrance.

Coles' / Wesfarmers' practices are not only irresponsible; they're potentially life threatening as well.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

One Picture Says It All.

Have a look at this photo taken just after 6PM of the child play area at Coles Kings Beach Tavern in Caloundra in Queensland's Sunshine Coast.This looks like a child in a room with all the play stations, play equipment and coin operated video games any child could want.

What is chilling is how it all looks like a pokie room.

What is missing is the child's parents.

Here's what the bistro looks like at the same Kings Beach Tavern.
You might recall Cole's written support of the National Principle of Responsible Gambling that there should be no exposure of pokie gambling to minors within the venue. This venue does not only not comply, with this kind of layout, Coles actively promotes exposure of pokie lights and sounds.

You might also recall that I wrote to Robert Hadler asking him about their support of the National Principles on 28 July and seeking response. The reply I got was that "will respond when I am able to view on my lap top".

I have received no response from Mr Hadler or anyone else from Coles / Wesfarmers.

My response was to visit over 60 Coles pokie pubs between 30 July and 3 August. Over the next few days, I'll be writing about what I saw.