Queensland publicans are being urged to aggressively counter Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie’s poker machine reforms through a series of media “talking points” circulated by industry lobbyist the Queensland Hotels Association.

A secret internal “issues brief“, sent this morning by QHA chief Justin O’Connor, and obtained by Crikey, lays bare the official strategy to protest pre-commitment technology and other reforms which the Gillard government must implement to avoid losing power.

The document — which is pockmarked with typos and non-sequiturs — takes personal aim at the “prohibitionist” Tasmanian MP, suggesting he doesn’t understand the scope of the debate. It also says gamblers can’t be trusted to regulate their own conduct because there are no limits on the so-called “license to punt” required as part of the system.

“Someone with an EGM [Electronic Gaming Machine] addiction or problem, could simply obtain a card, set a daily loss limit of $10,000, and continue playing as before,” O’Connor claims.

The real pokie losses — around 30% — would be from recreational gamblers dissuaded by fresh red tape. The task of linking venues to the system “was even more complex that [sic] pink bats [sic].”

An email accompanying the brief says it should be employed strictly for use in “media commentary or backgrounding”, “staff briefings” or “internal distribution” within hotel groups.

Wilkie slammed the QHA this morning, accusing O’Connor of peddling an “an outrageous combination of misinformation and outright lies” that showed “complete contempt” for the 95,000 Australians that lose $5 billion a year on gaming machines.

“It has all the hallmarks of a desperate industry thrashing around in the hope it can prevent sensible and popular poker machine reforms,” he said.

“A loser in all this is the public interest, which would be much better served by a factual and honest exploration of the poker machine problem gambling crisis in this country, and the effective harm minimisation measures needed to address it.”

According to Wilkie and South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, under the reforms 88% of players who bet less than $1 a game wouldn’t require a license if software was shifted to ‘low intensity’ levels away from high intensity settings that drain up to $1200 an hour from the wallets of the pathologically addicted.

But in the document, the QHA states that Wilkie’s concern with ‘low intensity’ poker machines is misguided, claiming that they didn’t currently exist and would need to be replaced at a cost of “$3 billion”.

“Wilkie apparently has in mind some kind of ‘fruit machines’ such as exist in parts of the United Kingdom. However, by his own statements, Wilkie expects such machines to ‘reduce poker machine revenue by 90%’. Clearly, such an economic threat is being taken seriously by the gaming industry.”

The QHA also reports that in Queensland less than one half of one percent of adults are problem gamblers. However, according to last year’s Productivity Commission’s report, this statistic is “misleading for policy purposes”. The PC prefers to cite the 15% of poker machine players that are problem gamblers and the additional 15% at risk of becoming one. Problem gamblers contribute close to 40% of total poker machine losses, it noted.

Nick Xenophon also dismissed the document, telling Crikey the government had already committed to introduce mandatory pre-commitment technology before the last election.

“If this industry really is about entertainment, not about revenue, they would make poker machines safer and reduce the amount a person can lose.”

“The industry doesn’t want to talk about making poker machines safer because they make their money from problem gamblers.”

Xenophon rejected the QHA’s fruity language, blasting the peak body for the assumption the issue had become a personal crusade.

“Andrew and I do not have a ‘prohibitionist’ agenda on poker machines. We simply want to introduce reforms to make them safer – to ensure people don’t lose their homes, their jobs, their families, and sometimes most tragically, their lives, as a result of poker machine addiction.”

Late last week, the Queensland Labor government said it would only support a voluntary pre-commitment scheme. Interestingly many of the quotes provided by attorney general Paul Lucas appear verbatim in the QHA’s brief. Both state there is no “silver bullet” for problem gambling and that a mandatory card-based system would cruel pubs and clubs’ revenue.

Still, it appears that not all QHA members are sharing in the message of virulent opposition. The owner of Rockhampton’s Heritage Hotel and current QHA member Will Fowles told Crikey that he would be rejecting O’Connor’s salvo.

“I hate the pokies. I have 14 machines in my pub because they came with the place, you have to pay for them when you buy a pub and the government won’t let you sell them to anyone on a commercial basis (as they clip the ticket for 30-50% of the transaction cost).

“They also won’t buy them back. I am appalled with the vehemence of this campaign, particularly as it is part-funded by my dues,” he said.

Meanwhile, yesterday’s front page story by Sid Maher in The Oz on ALP “rising figure” Tara Moriarty’s objections to Wilkie’s reforms have raised eyebrows inside the other divisions of her union United Voice, which represents club workers alongside cleaners and janitors.

Not only did Maher get Moriarty’s title wrong (Moriarty is secretary of the Liquor and Hospitality division of the NSW branch of United Voice, not the state secretary of the broader union), but the story failed to point out that the rest of the Missos are firm backers of pre-commitment technology.

Moriarty’s pro-clubs division is a right wing island inside a sea of lefties epitomised by Victorian state secretary Jess Walsh, who has championed the so-called ‘organising model’ pioneered by America’s Service Employees International Union to striking effect.

While membership declines across the national union have stabilised, insiders say Moriarty’s marginalised clique has been losing serious ground.

Peter Fray

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