Remember the day back in 2009 when Dick McIlwain, then the CEO of Tatts Group, made the following comment after the Victorian government took away his 50% share of Victoria’s pokies management duopoly?
I am not unhappy to be getting out of the poker machine business; they are not the sort of business I want to be in long term and they’re on the nose all around the world.
A decade later and Australian losses on poker machines (including at casinos) have jumped by another 50% to hit $14 billion in 2019. This is a big chunk of the total $25 billion Australians lose to gambling each year.
Aristocrat Leisure — Australia’s biggest pokies manufacturer and one of the world’s five most valuable listed gambling companies, with a market capitalisation of $23.3 billion — is holding its AGM at the company headquarters in Sydney tomorrow.
I’ll be attending as a shareholder along with two women who have had a lived experience of gambling harm. It will be interesting to hear what the board and management say in response to a series of questions.
Here’s a sample of what they’ll be asked:
1. Why are Australians the world’s biggest gamblers and why are the people of NSW Australia’s biggest gamblers? Can the CEO Trevor Croker, who has made more than $20 million running Aristocrat, give us his view on why Australian politicians and regulators aren’t doing anything meaningful about this?
2. There is said to be one gambling-related suicide a day in Australia — have we ever considered giving compensation to families who have lost loved ones after they became addicted to our products?
3. Troy Stoltz, a whistleblower from Clubs NSW, recently claimed money laundering is rife in NSW clubs and pubs. He was quoted by the ABC saying: “The crooks are going into pubs and clubs with their drug money and putting it in the machines and the crooks are cleaning it.”
What dealings do we have with AUSTRAC, the NSW gambling regulator and the clubs and pubs to ensure our poker machines aren’t used for criminal money laundering?
4. Is there any other jurisdiction in the world that allows $7500 in cash to be loaded up into a poker machine as occurs in NSW? Isn’t this just designing machines for money laundering? And why the contrast with South Australia, which until recently still only had coin-operated machines?
5. Chairman, have you or the other directors taken the time to meet anyone who has suffered a lived experience of gambling harm from using your products? (Watch this video from last year’s AGM of former chairman Ian Blackburne struggling to answer a similar question).
6. The annual reports talk about an increased focus on transparency. This question wasn’t answered last year. Can you tell us how many Aristocrat pokies are currently in Australian venues? The results presentation talks about increased market share in Australia. What is our market share, roughly, in percentage terms?
7. In 2018, we sold 14,079 new poker machines in Australia and New Zealand and did 6294 conversions — this generated record revenue of $455 million and an operating profit of $207 million, which is a huge profit margin. Is this sustainable given some of our clients, such as the Victorian RSL, are closing and selling pokies venues because they keep losing money?
8. How does Aristocrat play the political influencing game, including through industry associations? We are the largest supplier of poker machines to Australian, pubs, club and casinos. While we don’t do any direct political donations, are you comfortable with the fact that the Australian Hotels Association donated $1.3 million to the major parties in Victoria alone last year?
9. What do you say to the claim that our poker machines are built for addiction, or are the “ultimate addiction machine” as Monash University’s Charles Livingstone describes it? Is our core business using “operant and classical conditioning to habituate gambling”?
10. Then-Wesfarmers CEO Richard Goyder said the following in February 2017:
We have written to the pokie machine manufacturers to ask them to make the software changes because we’re not allowed to make those changes, to trial $1 spin limits. We’re waiting to see if we get a response, we’re hoping to get a position response because we’d like to trial it, we think it’s the right thing to do and we’re a bit frustrated at the moment that we can’t do it.
Three years later, when are you going to finally make $1 maximum bet machines available in the Australian market as has twice been recommended by the Productivity Commission? If a venue or a regulator asked for a $1 maximum bet machine, how hard or easy would it be to supply?
11. Are we aware of institutional shareholders selling out due to environmental, social, and governance concerns or particular institutions who won’t own our shares due to concerns about the social harm caused by gambling?
12. Coles and Woolworths are getting out of the pokies, a bunch of Victorian AFL clubs have divested (the latest being Hawthorn, which announced it is exploring a partial exit this week) and younger veterans are urging the Victorian RSL to get out. Are we concerned that our core pokies product is becoming toxic to be associated with?
13. In 2000, company founder Len Ainsworth famously said the secret to our success was “building a better mouse trap”. With a market capitalisation of $23.3 billion, is it fair to say we’ve perfected the art of building mouse traps?
If you’ve got any questions you’d like asked at tomorrow’s Aristocrat AGM, email them through to [email protected]
Stephen Mayne is the founder of Crikey and a shareholder activist.