ACT's $50 note limit on pokies is rough end of the pineapple for problem gamblers

How about this for a "harm minimisation" strategy for poker machines, ACT Gaming and Racing Minister Joy Burch: don't let gamblers feed $50 notes into Canberra pokies.

The Canberra Times revealed on Monday that Ms Burch had quietly decided just before Christmas to scrap the $20 note limit for pokies, allowing the use of $50 notes.

Talk about giving problem gamblers - and their families - the rough end of the pineapple.

Various anti-gambling campaigners and welfare groups like the Salvation Army who are left to pick up the pieces described the ACT government's surprise move as "a terrible thing", "completely cynical" and likely to do "rapid damage".

"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," Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce chairman Tim Costello said.

As Monday's report in this newspaper noted, the Productivity Commission has pointed to Victorian research suggesting problem gamblers prefer being able to feed notes directly into pokies because it allows them to gamble silently without inserting coins and drawing attention to the amount they are spending, and without having to interact with staff to get coins.


And now the ACT government - one of the few jurisdictions to allow note acceptors - has gone and made it easier for Canberrans with a gambling habit, or on their way to one, to lose their money faster.

Ms Burch has defended the change  by saying it was driven by the need to balance "harm minimisation" for gamblers against the need to protect ACT clubs from competition from clubs across the border in NSW where there are no bill denomination limits.

Minister Burch said the move focused on the "vast majority" of responsible club visitors who saw the venues as multi-purpose facilities offering dining and other entertainment rather than the small minority of problem players  who account for an alarmingly disproportionate share of the money that goes into poker machines nationwide.

The fact that the scrapping of the $20 note limit was left out of the package of changes to ACT pokies regulations outlined in October and came into effect - unannounced - on December 22 is not a good look for Andrew Barr's Labor government.

Not when about 10 per cent (488) of the 4974 poker machines in Canberra are owned by ACT Labor through its Labor clubs.

Not surprisingly, Clubs ACT chief executive Jeff House likes the government's change of policy, saying that allowing $50 notes makes sense because the ATM withdrawal limit in clubs is now set at $250.

The $20 note limit had hit poker machine profits in the territory, Mr House said.

Apparently, the cost of loading their ATMs with all those $20 bills wagered on the pokies was hurting clubs, so restocking with the higher denomination will now save them money - a comforting thought, no doubt, for the problem gambler feeding his or her last $50 note into a poker machine.

Also likely to have raised a few eyebrows: Mr House's assertion that even though imposing the $20 note  limit had hurt club takings, raising the limit to a $50 note won't necessarily lift club takings.

So much for Ms Burch's noble bid to maintain the viability of ACT clubs.

Canberra Liberals leader Jeremy Hanson is right to question Labor's continued dependence on pokies proceeds given the government's role in regulating them. "It is morally and ethically bankrupt that ACT Labor owns, operates and regulates poker machines in Canberra," he said.

At the very least there is a clear onus on Ms Burch and Mr Barr to ensure that any actions taken in regards to the operation of poker machines are an open book.

But government motives are muddied further by the abandonment of a commitment to reduce Canberra poker machine numbers by almost 20 per cent to 4000 - a pledge it took to the last election.

The adoption of a population ratio-based model of 15 machines for every 1000 people means only 189 machines will go, not the proposed 974, and many of these will be reinstated as the population climbs.

Perhaps it's time for new Chief Minister to carefully rethink his government's apparent determination to match NSW when it comes to the pokies.