10 Nov 2022 By theguardian
A significantly expanded voluntary trial of cashless gambling cards is firming as the most likely response to a scathing New South Wales Crime Commission report, which found only a mandatory scheme would be effective in combating money laundering in the state's pubs and clubs.
As pressure mounts on the government to tackle gambling reform in the lead-up to the March election, a senior government minister, Rob Stokes, upped the ante with a blistering speech on Wednesday night, saying the state's clubs have been "distorted and disfigured" by their reliance on poker machine revenue. He called for a ban on "gambling advertising that programs young people to a lifetime of addiction".
Citing figures showing revenue reached $3.8bn in the first half of this year, Stokes, the retiring planning minister, said poker machine gambling had become such a lucrative "cash cow" for the clubs lobby that its "social agenda" had been "subordinated to commercial interests".
"The comforting stereotype of a suburban bowlo nestled in a quiet street under the gum trees is far from the reality of many contemporary clubs, which are bloated concrete bunkers separated from their community by vast, treeless car parks," he said.
"Outwardly they are brutal, unwelcoming junk spaces that all look the same; inwardly they are a fairyland of lights and delights, all directed to deprive the vulnerable of their savings.
"If a cashless gaming card can help liberate a few people from their enslavement to poker machines, then it is the least we can do for the people of New South Wales."
Stokes' intervention comes as the premier, Dominic Perrottet, moves to quell both a push from anti-gambling advocates for reform on one side, and resistance to reform from the powerful clubs lobby and his Nationals counterparts on the other.
It's understood that solution is likely to include an expanded trial of a voluntary trial now under way at one club in Newcastle.
But anti-gambling advocates have also warned any trial will only be effective if it is mandatory.
The opposition leader, Chris Minns, announced that Labor would support a trial of the card on Wednesday, after criticism from anti-gambling advocates and Alex Greenwich, an influential crossbench MP, of the party's refusal to back the policy.
Minns said Labor would back an expansion of an existing trial taking place at a single venue in Newcastle, which he said was "clearly not enough to get an evidence base to make a change".
"We need a broader evidence base so that when we do make reforms and changes to the sector, we actually understand what the circumstances of those changes will be, what the impact will be on the clubs and pubs industry, what it will mean for those that work in that industry, and whether it will, in fact, work," he said.
His comments came after Perrottet said last week that he wanted to introduce the card, in light of the Crime Commission's report that found that billions of dollars in "dirty" money is being gambled in pubs and clubs across the state each year.
While the government is yet to formalise its position, a significantly expanded trial based either on the number of venues or a total number of machines is the likely outcome.
But any trial is likely to remain voluntary, something that has drawn the ire of anti-gambling advocates.
On Wednesday Minns indicated his preference for a voluntary trial, saying he didn't want the clubs industry - and its employees - to be "materially affected" by any expansion.
But the effectiveness of a voluntary system has been questioned by experts, including the Crime Commission. In its report it found that a voluntary card "will not address" money laundering in the state "as criminals dealing with the proceeds of crime will simply use cash".
"A hybrid/voluntary system will likely make pubs and clubs more attractive venues for money launderers as hybrid player card systems could be exploited to make 'cleaning' easier," the commission said.
On Wednesday a coalition of groups, including the Wesley Mission, Anglicare, the Salvation Army and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, released its 2023 election platform which urged NSW to follow Tasmania by introducing the card.
The chief executive of Wesley Mission, Stu Cameron, said a similar system introduced in Victoria has failed to work because it was voluntary, insisting there was "no reasonable excuses or reasons not to proceed" with a mandatory system.
"Voluntary cards reinforce stigma because a person is identifying themselves as needing help by requesting one," Cameron said.
"Mandatory or universal cards mean everyone has to use them - stopping criminal activity and providing useful tools for people to help guard against gambling harm caused by poker machines, which have been designed to addict."
Greenwich has been critical of Labor for refusing to back his push for the card to be legislated before the March election, but on Wednesday Minns hit back saying he was "not going to hand the state over" to the Sydney MP.
"I'm not going to get steamrolled into a policy position, without the evidence base in place," he said. "We will make decisions based on commonsense evidence, fact information, and that means looking at the circumstances as it applies."