Anti-gambling campaigners have blasted a decision by ACT Gaming and Racing Minister Joy Burch to scrap the $20 note limit for poker machines, allowing gamblers to use $50 notes.
Ms Burch made the change on December 22 but there was no announcement.The move was not mentioned in the package of changes to poker machine law released in October.
The decision to scrap the $20 limit has taken problem-gambling groups by surprise.
The Salvation Army's Scott Warrington, who manages a residential program for problem gamblers, said machines should be limited to coins.
"Anything that encourages people to lose more money is a terrible thing," he said. "A lot of our clients will just take their pay and once they start on the poker machine, that's it; they can't stop themselves. Then they're virtually starving for a week or two weeks before they get paid again."
Independent senator Nick Xenophon said people would lose money more quickly, fuelling problem gambling.
"The fact that it was done with little or no public consultation is completely cynical on the part of the government," he said. "They're prepared to balance their books off the backs of the vulnerable and the addicted."
Dr Charles Livingstone, a gambling researcher at Monash University's School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, said the move would hit people who had a problem with gambling and accelerate others into problem gambling.
"It will almost certainly increase the amount of money going into machines and most of that will come from people with a gambling problem or on the way to a gambling problem," he said.
The states and territories had an "appalling" conflict of interest when it came to regulating gambling and were unable to make sound decisions, driven more by their revenue concerns than by protecting gamblers, he said.
ACT Labor owns 488 poker machines through its Labor clubs.
Ms Burch said the decision was made as part of ongoing consultation with clubs aimed at harm minimisation but also at maintaining the viability of clubs, including their ability to compete with NSW clubs.
She had asked for advice on how to impose a limit on how many notes a single machine could take from an individual gambler.
Clubs ACT chief executive Jeff House said the restrictions on notes were introduced about 2004 when there was no ATM withdrawal limit in clubs.
Now that the ATM limit was $250, it made sense to allow $50 notes.
"We thought it made sense to allow patrons to use $50 notes and, by virtue of that, have $50 notes in the ATMs within venues rather than just $20 bills," he said. "It costs clubs money to buy money that goes into the ATMS and if there are notes of higher denominations, it costs less money for the clubs to restock their ATMs."
Mr House said the $20 limit had hit poker machine profits when it was introduced but he did not expect lifting the limit would have the opposite effect in the current environment.
"I think all it will do is represent convenience for club members," he said. "I don't think they will be putting through the machines more money than they otherwise would. I think it will be the same amount of money but just in different denominations."
Asked about the government's failure to publicly announce the change, he said, in his view, it was not significant enough to have warranted an announcement.
Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson said it was "not surprising that ACT Labor would seek to maximise its profits".
"It is morally and ethically bankrupt that ACT Labor owns, operates and regulates poker machines in Canberra," he said.
Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce chairman Tim Costello said scrapping the $20 note limit was irresponsible.
"It makes no sense. It is completely a failure of ACT policy and of the industry that loves to say there's just a few individuals who are pathetic individuals who have problems. The problem is the machines," he said.
Without bet limits, you could do "rapid damage in a very short time", Mr Costello said, pointing to the Productivity Commission's recommendation to limit bets to $1 and losses to $20 an hour.
The ACT is one of the few regions to allow note acceptors. South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and Western Australia allow machines to take coins (other than in casinos). Western Australia doesn't have poker machines other than in a casino. Victoria has a $50 note limit. Queensland scrapped its $20 limit a year ago. NSW has no limit.
The Productivity Commission has pointed to Victorian research, which suggested problem gamblers preferred note acceptors because it allowed them to gamble silently without inserting coins and drawing attention to the amount they were spending, and without having to interact with staff to get coins.