This morning, Greens Senator Richard Di Natale back-flipped from the party’s previous line on poker machines — abandoning mandatory pre-commitment technology and agitating instead for the roll-out of low-intensity pokies based on new $1 bet limits.

According to Di Natale, the reverse ferret is a strategic move to sidestep the harping of Clubs Australia and Clubs NSW over Andrew Wilkie’s $5 billion “license to punt”.

So what would the Greens’ machine look like? This morning’s proposal addresses three variables — bet limits ($1), cash loading limits ($20) and jackpot restrictions ($500) — but doesn’t mention other potential restrictions on spin rates, lines and maximum credits, except within existing state-based laws.

Di Natale media adviser Andrew Blyberg told Crikey this morning that operators would be free to vary the number of lines and the bet per line “as long as they complied with state regulation and didn’t exceed the $1 per button push”.

But what would that mean in practice? Would the Greens be condemning punters to RSLs full of dull and possibly wind-powered 1 and 2 cent machines?

According to Di Natale, 88% of voters only bet $1 per spin anyhow so they won’t notice the difference. And the 1 cent thing is a misnomer anyway: in Victoria you can load up “1 cent” machine to play $5 per bet by maxing out credits and lines. And with a itchy trigger finger you can get through 1200 bets per hour. So currently a massive $6,000 an hour can be lost on a 1 cent machine.

Here’s Crikey‘s calculations on what the Greens machine — that we’ve dubbed the Greens Lantern — would look like.

On a 1 cent Lantern, 10 credits would have to be played on 10 lines. Or on a 2 cent machine, 5 credits could be played on 10 lines. Research suggests many gamblers don’t like limiting lines because of the fear they could miss out. So assuming you’re deep in Bob Brown territory at Hobart’s Waratah Hotel, with Tasmania’s legislated 30-line limit, the Lantern’s $20 load-up maximum would mean punters would be restricted to betting on a new brand of “3.3 cent” machines.

The proposed $500 jackpot limit would smooth out the current payout fluctuations and mean that lingering on a machine for hours could be less appealing.

But losses could still be substantial. Acccording to the Productivity Commission, a $1 per spin, based on a 90% rate of return, would see gamblers losing between $65 and $100 per hour, depending on the number of button pushes. Still, it’s a big improvement on the current situation, where pathological jabbers on high-intensity machines in NSW and the ACT can lose $1200 per hour based on 20 button pushes a minute.

In a statement this morning, Wilkie claimed that nothing had changed in the wake of the Greens decision. He says the announcement “dovetailed” with his dual pre-commitment, low-intensity model.

But federal Labor sources are irate at the move, demanding their coalition partners commit to voting for the legislation when it hits the House of Representatives early next year.

Blyberg says Adam Bandt will ultimately stump for the joint Wilkie-Labor bill, but will first attempt to influence the debate and shop around their “superior proposal” before the final decision in parliament.

“Any reform is better than no reform and we’re not going to be setting up any roadblocks on this issue,” he said.

Until today the Greens’ support for mandatory pre-commitment has been regular and vocal. On March 22 in the Senate, Rachel Siewert moved a joint motion with Nick Xenophon commending “the ongoing effort to introduce a national pre-commitment scheme for all electronic gambling machine venues”.

An accompanying press release stated that the chamber had “commended ongoing efforts to introduce initiatives to reduce the impact of problem gambling on vulnerable people in the community. Significantly, this includes a national pre-commitment scheme for all electronic gambling machine venues.”

And on October 21 in 2009, Siewert called for a “commitment from all levels of government to develop and implement pre-commitment technologies by the end of 2010”.

Peter Fray

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