Dominic Perrottet gambles on poker machine reform as a vote winner

Not long ago it would have been political suicide to adopt measures so strongly opposed by ClubsNSW – but time will tell how it plays out at the polls

During a press conference to announce his ambitious overhaul of poker machines in New South Wales, Dominic Perrottet recalled a question he was asked while treasurer in 2017 about the billions of dollars in revenue the state receives from gambling each year.

“I thought, you might as well tax it, what’s the alternative?” the premier said on Monday.

“But that question never left me, and every budget I handed down … to see the billions of dollars coming in, that the state is profiting off other people’s misery, [I thought] that change needs to occur.”

It wasn’t quite that simple, of course. Perrottet has long been uncomfortable with the influence of gambling in NSW, but is also the premier who demoted former gaming minister Victor Dominello after he earned the ire of ClubsNSW during his vocal push for a cashless gaming card.

Which in a way underlines just how significant it is that less than two months out from the next state election, both major parties are now campaigning on who has the tougher gambling reform package.

Such is the influence of the clubs lobby in the state that it would’ve seemed ludicrous even 12 months ago to suggest any government would be rolling out a plan so strongly opposed by ClubsNSW.

At the last three elections the Coalition signed MOUs with ClubsNSW touting their support for the sector. In 2019 Labor released its own “plan to support clubs”.

These document were sold as an acknowledgment of the role that clubs play in their community and as employers, but implicit in their existence was the understanding it was in the best interests of both major political parties not to put the industry offside.

Perrottet may receive significant credit for changing this dynamic. Labor certainly hadn’t planned on talking about gambling reform, and a substantial bloc of the premier’s own Coalition have had to be dragged to the table, convinced by a longer lead-in period to a cashless system and financial support for the industry.

The package announced by Perrottet on Monday includes a roadmap that would see NSW move to cashless gaming on poker machines by the end of 2028. While it will not include a daily spending cap, as in Tasmania, it will require gamblers to set their own limits that cannot be changed for a week.

The government also followed Labor in introducing a ban on political donations from clubs, and committing to a state-wide self-exclusion register that will include third-party exclusions.

Whether this push is personal or political for Perrottet seems beside the point – it’s obviously a little bit of both. The fact both major parties are now tied to reform in this space is a substantial shift in the status quo for NSW politics, enabled by a string of controversies related to the casino industry in Australia and the release of a crime commission report which found billions in “dirty” money was being gambled in pubs and clubs in the state every year.

The question now is whether voters will see the package as substantially different to Labor’s.

While anti-gambling advocates such as Tim Costello have criticised the opposition leader, Chris Minns, for failing to commit to cashless gaming, Labor points out that the government’s promise to have cashless gaming rolled out by the end of 2028 means it wouldn’t be in place until two elections away.

Minns’ own “comprehensive” reform package, however, only includes an expanded trial and no fixed timeline for when, if ever, cashless gaming could come into play.

The other question is whether it is significant enough of an issue to move votes.

Labor doesn’t think so, and have continued to insist behind closed doors that it is not coming up as a key issue in its internal polling.

But for a government that has been beset by a series of integrity scandals over the past two years – including the resignation of a premier during a corruption scandal, and a series of damning reports into so-called pork-barrelling – having a premier who has articulated a vision of himself as a moral reformer might yet prove telling.


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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