FOR A MAN with many, overlapping interests, Anthony Sobb appears remarkably unconflicted.
Sobb is CEO of one of Australia’s more successful registered clubs, Sydney’s Fairfield RSL, where gaming revenue runs to $39 million per year. If the club Sobb runs lines up with government estimates, some 41 per cent — or $16 million — of its vast poker machine revenue comes from problem gamblers.
Sobb is also chairman, a few doors down the road, of Oakdene House, a treatment centre he founded in 2012 to help Fairfield’s problem gamblers. He is the embodiment of the federal Coalition’s new problem-gambling policy, which would encourage poker-machine operators to partner with counselling services to root out gambling addicts in their venues. Except he’s gone further — Anthony Sobb has set up his own.
In the quiet halls of Oakdene House, this provider of both poison and cure is confidently explaining why gambling regulation is doomed to failure.
One by one he ticks off and discards proposed measures for tackling Australia’s runaway obsession with the bet.
“[Problem gamblers are] incredibly intelligent people,” he reasons. “Cutting down the number of poker machines? They will find another gambling form of choice.
“Saying you can’t put hundred dollar notes in the machine? They’ll play two machines with $50 in them.
“Saying you can only get $200 a day out of ATMs? They’ll get a couple of different cards and they’ll go to different ATMs.”
Certainly, he allows, “the opportunities to gamble have now vastly increased. That’s got to tell you, if you do the maths, there’s going to be more issues in relation to problem gamblers”.
But his club must contribute to that problem, operating many dozens of glittering poker machines. Aren’t his two roles in conflict? Sobb shrugs at the suggestion. “There are going to be sceptics out there who say it’s a conflict,” he says. “What can I do about that?”
ON SEPTEMBER 10, 2007, in an interview on the election campaign trail, then-Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd spoke candidly about Australian state governments’ unique embrace of the pokies.
“I hate poker machines,” he told The Australian newspaper, “and I know something of their impact on families.”
He signalled federal intervention on the issue. “It’s of sufficient concern to me for this not to just drop off the radar,” he said.
Rudd’s comments, and the mood for change that accompanied Labor’s election that November, seemed to prompt a review of the place of gambling machines in Australian life. Despite its small population, Australia has the fifth-largest number of poker machines of any country in the world, and Australians lose more money per capita on gambling than any other country.
Depending on whose estimate you use, something between 22 and 60 percent of gambling-machine revenue is drawn from problem gamblers, and state governments (not including Western Australia, where poker machines are banned outside Crown’s Burswood Casino) have come to rely on gambling losses for some 10 per cent of their annual revenue.
In his first go-round as Prime Minister, Rudd enlisted World Vision chief and long-time anti-pokies activist Tim Costello to advise him on the issue. The Leader of the Liberal-National Coalition Government at the time, Brendan Nelson, expressed his own concerns about poker machines, and called for a Productivity Commission report into the industry. Even the clubs’ lobby group, Clubs Australia, joined the chorus for a national inquiry, saying it welcomed the opportunity to show the industry’s progress in warding gambling addicts away from venues. In October 2008, Prime Minister Rudd asked the Productivity Commission to begin its work, and provide figures and recommendations upon which the government could base its policy agenda.
Half a decade on, it all seems so naive: as if the barrier to reforming Australia’s multi-billion dollar poker-machine industry could merely have been a dearth of reliable, rigorous research. The Commission’s report, released in 2010, found that, overall, gambling rates had declined, but there was no evidence that problem gamblers were contributing any less to the industry’s bottom line than they were 10 years earlier.
A slew of harm-minimisation measures was recommended. Poker machines should be fitted with pre-commitment technology, allowing punters to nominate how much they’d lose in a single session, the commission said, and the maximum value of bets should be capped at $1. These measures found their way into a reform package championed by Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie.
But the “Wilkie Reforms” withered in the face of a multi-million dollar campaign run against them by Clubs Australia. On billboards targeted at marginal Labor MPs, in television spots, and public rallies, the industry cast the measures as “un-Australian”, and warned that they would send pubs and clubs broke. Behind the scenes, the Australian Electoral Commission recorded a dramatic spike in political donations from the pub and club lobbies to the major parties, principally to the Coalition.
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