The Australian pub industry and registered clubs are in a state of deep panic over two bills which have been presented in the Senate by Senator Steve Fielding of Family First.

When Fielding introduced the Poker Machine Harm Reduction Tax (Administration) Bill on February 14 and the Poker Machine Harm Minimisation Bill on June 19, they passed under the radar of the media and the liquor and gaming industries.

But Fielding’s motives became clearer with a Sky TV interview in which he said his aim was to ban all pokies from Australia’s pubs and clubs in 10 years. In future, he said, pokies should be confined to dedicated gambling venues such as casinos and race tracks.

Now the liquor industries have fine tooth-combed the two bills and found to their horror that the Fielding plan spells financial doom for pubs and clubs and revenue disaster for state governments which have become dependent on the gaming tax dollar.

Here are just some of the proposals in Fielding’s poker machine harm minimization legislation:

  1. Poker machines to be re-engineered to accept a maximum $20 note bet. NSW machines currently accept $100 notes.
  2. Poker machines to be modified to accept no more than $100 of credit at a time. NSW machines currently allowed up to $10,000 at a time.
  3. Poker machines in future to have no more than one pay line. Current machines have up to 25 pay lines.
  4. Poker machines to allow a maximum of a $1 bet per spin. In NSW the current max bet is $10 per spin.
  5. The maximum jackpot to be limited to $1,000. The current maximum in NSW is $10,000.
  6. Future machines to be adjusted to have a spin rate of five seconds. NSW machines currently have a faster 3.5 second spin rate.
  7. ATMs in pubs and clubs to pay out a maximum $100 per cardholder per day.

To put these measures into some kind of perspective, consider this:

If the bet is reduced from $10 to $1 (a 90 per cent reduction), the game spin is slowed from 3.5 seconds to 5 seconds (a 30 per cent reduction), the amount that can be fed into a poker machine reduced from $10,000 to $100 at a time (a 99 per cent reduction) and note acceptors reduced from $100 to $20 (an 80 per cent reduction), these combined measures would reduce gambling revenue by half.

In the 2006-2007 financial year, the NSW Government received $1.1 billion from poker machine tax. This would be halved.

In his harm minimization tax legislation, Fielding proposes a new Commonwealth tax on gross gaming revenue in 2009 of 1 per cent, growing to 4 per cent in 2012, 10 per cent in 2015 and then 5 per cent per year until it reaches a maximum of 30 per cent.

A spokesman for the NSW liquor and gaming industry told Crikey that Fielding’s taxation schedule and his plans to modify poker machines would devastate pubs and clubs and wipe many of them out of existence.

Each year Australians put more than $7 billion of their hard-earned into pokies in pubs and clubs, a figure which is a national scandal.

While every right-thinking person wants an end to Australia’s pokie addiction, Fielding’s plan is shallow populism. Let’s see what Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull can do about it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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