As the Alliance for Gambling Reform noted yesterday, gamblers have now saved an estimated $1.5 billion since Australia’s nearly 200,000 poker machines were shut down on March 23.

The earliest reopening for the industry, which extracts a staggering $14 billion a year from gamblers, is likely to be in Northern Territory pubs on May 15.

The politically powerful industry is pushing for an early return in other states too in what will be an interesting test of the lobbying ability of pubs, clubs and casinos.

Despite coming across as captain tough guy on school shutdowns, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has shown himself to be partial to giving the gambling industry a rails run.

The Age splashed its Saturday print edition with this story about an exclusive gambling-industry task force set up by the Victoria government with a view to reopen the gambling industry some time in July.

And while Daniel Andrews was happy to shut down his beloved Victorian golf industry, unlike Tasmania racing in Victoria has been allowed to continue.

There have been reports that online gambling has surged during the pokies shutdown, but it depends on which segments you look at.

The power of our land-based pokies lobby means that online gambling is quite constrained Australia, with no online poker allowed or anything that resembles an online casino. Indeed, the Turnbull government passed special national legislation to destroy the Australian business of online lottery outfit Lottoland.

However, the industry is pivoting. Pokies manufacturing giant Aristocrat Leisure is now also the world’s second biggest social gaming company and it told the ASX last week that its digital business “has continued to perform strongly” in recent months.

About $4.4 billion a year is lost on traditional wagering and sports gambling in Australia, with almost $3 billion of this coming through online channels pushed by the likes of Sportsbet, Bet365, Ladbrokes, Pointsbet, Beteasy and Tabcorp.

While gambling on Australian racing is up all over the world, the lack of live local sport has reduced this element of online gambling spending, although not to the same degree as the pokies shutdown which is literally saving an average of $38 million a day.

In an important corporate development for the global gambling industry, the Beteasy name has now been pulled from the Australian market after Sportsbet’s Irish parent company, Flutter Entertainment, last night completed the takeover of Canada’s The Stars Group, owner of Beteasy.

Flutter is now the world’s biggest online gambling company and after the first day of trading it is capitalised at $15 billion, giving it an enterprise value of roughly $22 billion when you take into account its circa $7 billion in gross debt.

When the Flutter-Stars merger was announced last October, the Australian influence was noteworthy. Caledonia Investments, run by Sydney billionaire Will Vicars, was central to the negotiations having helped bring the parties together. Caledonia is now the largest shareholder in the combined group with more than 10%.

The Murdochs were also pivotal, being 5% shareholders in The Stars Group through Fox Corp and having a 50% stake in the US-focused Fox Bet joint venture with Stars, now part of the Flutter empire.

As of yesterday the Murdochs control about 2.5% of Flutter, a $370 million stake which makes their Fox Corp one of the 10 largest shareholders in the world’s biggest online gambling company.

This direct investment, along with the big advertising spend by gambling companies, perhaps explains why News Corp is reluctant to serve up much negative coverage for the gambling industry in Australia, where it also owns businesses such as punters.com.au, Racenet and Odds.com.au.

There has been limited News Corp attention on the $1.5 billion saved by Australia’s pokies gamblers in six weeks, even on the human angle, such as the ABC’s moving piece about the improved lives of three gambling addicts during the COVID-19 shut-down.

Most state governments were forecasting an increase in poker machine tax revenue in the period ahead, but with millions of gamblers being forced to kick the habit, it is expected that hundreds of the 5000 poker machine venues across Australia may choose to not return to the toxic business.

RSL Victoria is the biggest player to watch in this regard, with a group of younger veterans opposed to poker machines seeking board influence at the upcoming AGM on July 9.

If they win the day with RSL Victoria’s 50 pokies dens still closed, several of the loss-making venues may not ever reopen their pokies rooms.

RSL Victoria is due to pay the Andrews Government $68 million for new, 10–year pokies licences in August 2022, which partly explains why the incumbent board has been pursuing a controversial fire sale of its aged care business.

How it is good for veterans to sell off accommodation assets to pay for pokies licences is something the current board is going to have to explain to members over the coming weeks.

With pokies venues shut across Australia, there has never been a better time to permanently exit the toxic industry.

Indeed, the ACT government has even gone so far as offering $14,000 to clubs for each machine they retire during the shutdown.

The Labor Party itself is the second biggest pokies operator in Canberra through its four Labor Clubs, but we’re yet to see if they’re going to take up this generous offer by their own government.

No conflict of interest there, of course.

Peter Fray

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