After 18 months of preparation, law firm Maurice Blackburn, Ron Merkel QC and the Adelaide-based plaintiff Shonica Guy yesterday kicked off their David-and-Goliath Federal Court battle against Crown and Aristocrat Leisure, alleging that poker machines are misleading and deceptive.

The opening day attracted a full-scale media press conference before proceedings commenced in court 8G of the Federal Court building in Melbourne before Justice Deborah Mortimer.

These are busy times for Merkel QC who was attempting to knock over the marriage equality survey before the High Court last week, and is now taking on a couple of gambling behemoths in the world’s most gambling-dominated country where annual losses top $23 billion.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform, which is majority funded by Victorian councils concerned about poker machine harm in their communities, was out in force for the opening day yesterday with supporters holding up posters outside court, including three mayors of major metropolitan councils: John Hedditch from Brimbank, Helen Davidson from Moreland and Henry Barlow from Wyndham.

Alliance spokesman and director Tim Costello was busy equating the pokies industry to the all-powerful National Rifle Association in America. These lines that are said to be resonating in Tasmania where the ALP is inching closer to adopting a formal policy of removing pokies from pubs and clubs across the Island state, despite former Labor Premier Paul Lennon being chief lobbyist for local monopoly pokies operator Federal Hotels.

Most of the first day of what is expected to be a three-week trial was taken up by Merkel and his chief support act, Peter Gray QC. They outlined how features on the Dolphin Treasure poker machine, such as unbalanced reels and losses disguised as wins, breach national consumer protection laws and amount to unconscionable conduct, regardless of the fact that various state-based regulators have signed off on it.

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Counsel for Crown Neil Young QC gave a 30-minute burst at the end of the day and continued this morning.

In an unusual development, Mortimer and the parties were apparently heading down to the giant Crown gambling complex after lunch today for what the judge described yesterday as “a view” — that is, to inspect one of the 38 Aristocrat Dolphin Treasure poker machines currently operating at Crown.

Crown’s billionaire controlling shareholder, James Packer, who turned 50 on Friday, and is still partying offshore, wasn’t on-site to greet the judge who confessed to know very little about poker machines on day one of the trial.

Crown has been slow to file a defence and is clearly miffed about being dragged into the imbroglio, pointing out yesterday that Shonica Guy has never played a poker machine at Crown. The two gambling giants are each running their own defence and don’t necessarily appear to be united on either the tactics or the arguments.

Maurice Blackburn has produced a neat explainer on the case, including a nifty video, which has appeared on The Project, Sunrise and various television news reports about the proceedings, which is attractive coverage around the world, including this piece on the BBC.

In terms of the PR campaign, Aristocrat has out-sourced the job to a chap called Ross Ferrar, who is CEO of the Gaming Technology Association, which has an all-blokes board, like so many other players in the gambling industry.

Ferrar was telling anyone who would listen yesterday that millions of Australians enjoy playing poker machines, they are nationally approved and there is limited — if any — harm, which is a bit of stretch when annual losses now top $12 billion and pokies are illegal in Western Australia.

None of those millions of Australian supporters of poker machines were in the packed court house yesterday, which was standing room only in the morning and still had more than 60 people in attendance when day one of proceedings wrapped up at 4.20pm.

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In terms of how the trial will unfold, it became apparent yesterday that Crown and Aristocrat are not proposing to cross examine any of the lay witnesses being put up by Maurice Blackburn, otherwise known as poker machine victims.

Tactically, that might be a smart PR call as it would hardly be a good look to have a tough $10,000-a-day male barrister tearing through a female witness who has been severely harmed by poker machine addiction.

That said, Neil Young QC signaled yesterday that Crown will object to plaintiff requests for more oral evidence to be led by lay witnesses, and that skirmish looks set to be sorted on Thursday, along with some unknown dispute about the evidence to be given by Monash University pokies expert Dr Charles Livingstone.

A key piece of history in the development of the case goes back to when the late anti-pokies campaigner Paul Bendat donated $5000 to buy a secondhand Dolphin Treasure poker machine so that Livingstone and his Monash colleagues could take it apart.

Just why Crown and Aristocrat are objecting to his evidence is unclear, but it sounds like Livingstone is going to be an important player in these landmark proceedings over the next three weeks.

*Stephen Mayne works part time at The Alliance for Gambling Reform and was not paid for this item.

Peter Fray

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