ACT's gambling watchdog is all bark and no bite
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ACT's gambling watchdog is all bark and no bite

The ACT’s gambling watchdog has rolled over in its fight with the Canberra Raiders Club, showing it has a scary bark but a gentle bite.

By settling with the club and agreeing to scrap a record fine for poker machine breaches, the ACT Gambling and Racing Commission has proven itself a toothless and ineffective regulator.

At least the gambling watchdog growled at the Raiders club in the early stages of its investigation and enforcement action.

In contrast, ACT Gaming Minister Gordon Ramsay was mute when the commission’s decision to drop the fine was made public on Tuesday.

The case stemmed from the worrying story of Professor Laurie Brown, a gambling addict who fed more than $200,000 through poker machines at Raiders clubs in Canberra across an 18-month period.

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It was alleged the Raiders club breached its legal responsibilities by repeatedly failing to record or act on signs of Professor Brown’s gambling addiction.

The commission initially slapped the Raiders club with a $120,000 fine after investigating Professor Brown’s case, easily the largest fine it had ever handed down.

The most significant financial penalty dished out by the commission before this was a comparatively tiny $5000.

But the Raiders club appealed the decision as “riddled with errors”, and on Tuesday it was revealed the gambling commission had agreed to scrap the fine altogether.

Instead, the club has been stung with a formal reprimand, while offering to make a $60,000 donation to an as yet unnamed charity.

Problem gambling is a huge issue in this country and Canberra is no exception.

Last year a combined $168 million was poured into poker machines at Canberra’s clubs.

These clubs reciprocated by offering just $72,000 in return to fund programs aimed at helping gambling addicts.

The Canberra Raiders Club has strongly disputed that staff were aware of Professor Brown’s gambling addiction.

It is entirely possible the club’s argument was so compelling and robust the commission had no choice but to drop the fine.

If this is the case, it raises serious questions about the legal framework governing gambling in the territory, as well as what more can be done to help those with gambling problems.

Regardless, the decision to settle behind closed doors completely defeats the purpose of having a government regulator with enforceable powers.

If the ACT’s gambling commission is working to prevent problem gambling in the public interest, it is vital that it conducts its affairs in the public domain.

Accordingly, the public deserves a detailed explanation for the watchdog’s decision to drop the fine for the Raiders club.

The gambling commission has refused to explain the call so far, saying it cannot comment while the decision awaits ratification by its board.

It remains to be seen whether this process will be an exercise in rubber stamping.

The major loser from the saga is Professor Laurie Brown, who showed incredible bravery in coming forward to highlight her struggles with problem gambling.

Professor Brown’s reaction on learning her case had fizzled away perhaps best sums up sentiments towards the government’s decision.

To paraphrase her, it really does feel like the house always wins.

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