Sunday, August 24, 2008

Spinners and losers, the community pays a price, by Andrew Tate - Fairfax - 24th August 2008

The spinning gold sovereign used with such effect by author Frank Hardy to foretell a corruption of the spirit in the opening lines of his novel Power Without Glory is now rampant in our communities in the form of the spinning wheels of poker machines.

But where Hardy's book, widely seen as a fictionalised account of the life of legendary Collingwood football club benefactor John Wren, told how a man called John West became rich on the back of the working poor, now it's the clubs that are directly benefiting from gambling's most efficient form of community larceny.

Earlier this year, The Age reported that Victorian AFL clubs gouged more than $110 million from poker machines in the 2006-07 financial year and are increasingly targeting Melbourne's most vulnerable communities. The Monash University research also revealed rorting by clubs of their "community benefit" obligations.

The clubs disputed the accuracy of those figures and one club, Collingwood, has since moved to sell two of its loss-making venues. The Magpies, however, will not be offloading their three money-spinners in outer-suburban areas.

Also grabbing a slice of the action is Hawthorn, with former premier-turned-president Jeff Kennett last month trumpeting plans for 80 poker machines at Caroline Springs — an odd look for the chairman of beyondblue, which combats depression-related illnesses.

Some contend these pokies venues provide "entertainment" where other services are lacking. Even a businessman from 100 years ago, such as John Wren, would recognise these places. In 2006, the racing industry made its peace with Wren when the Champions of Australian Racing Museum staged an exhibition about his "contribution to society". Having built his fortune from the illicit tote he ran in a Collingwood yard from 1893 to 1907, the invitations praised Wren as a "visionary businessman".

But where a single illegal entrepreneur once defied the authorities to bring "sport" to the people, the State Government and AFL clubs appear to have found a way to take the sport, and the fairness, out of the equation.

While the government takes pride in its gaming industry reforms and has done some hard yards to open the state's gaming machines to smaller operators, the overall reach and take of poker machines will remain staggeringly high. The government also points to the banning of 24-hour venues outside the casino and in 2012 — yes, in four years — the ban on automatic teller machines in venues. But I still recall Labor Premier Joan Kirner's feigned excitement in 1990 at the media launch of the first gaming machine at the first Tabaret. The beaten Premier played a clunky football game where an electronic player had to kick a goal. The industry immediately hit the boundary, it had won the game and traditional poker machines soon joined the party.

Elsewhere, Premier Kennett's casino remains a behemoth. Its "visionary businessman" and purveyor of sport is James Packer, who has also done well from house-friendly changes to blackjack and roulette rules. Before its recent corporate shake-up, the Packer empire had the benefit of cross-promoting football stars, posing as clowns on Channel Nine's The Footy Show, taking every opportunity to mention the delights to be had at Crown. Collingwood's president Eddie McGuire played a lead role as host and enthusiastic company man.

Then consider that the clubs don't just collect their cash via the machines they operate. The government has also handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship for clubs such as Essendon to promote an anti-gambling message. Not a bad double-headed coin when you consider the Windy Hill social club is chock-full of poker machines.

The government and clubs maintain that revenue is put to good use, but that sounds a bit like the philanthropy attributed to the likes of Wren. Having cash on tap from the weakness of others usually allows you to throw some largesse towards your own pet causes.

It may ultimately be up to the public to make judgements about football clubs that talk about being part of a community, but who rely on gaming losses to feather the nest. AFL players earn their money onfield and provide joy to fans, but their pay packets and support networks should not be subsidised by pokies strategically placed to target those who covet the lifestyle that players enjoy.

Footy clinics, charity photo-ops and hospital visits are laudable, but the clubs and society should make stable homes for kids a priority ahead of the "community benefit" offered by football departments or big-screen TVs in gaming lounges.

In NSW, South Sydney co-owner Russell Crowe tried to take another path, moving to scrap the NRL club's 60 poker machines that were returning almost $1 million a year. Last week, members worried about revenue knocked back the plan.

Arguing his case, Crowe had said: "This group is for anyone who believes the best way to act is to think about how your actions can improve the lives of people in your community."

Contrast this to the AFL clubs' self-belief that the harm is offset by their own good deeds. Magpie president McGuire is one such charitable man, who views Wren as a great sporting entrepreneur and inspiration. He may be right. But after Collingwood took everything of value and left Victoria Park, the Pies' great spruiker lauded the club's move to the banks of the Yarra — where in the 1930s, Wren developed the Motordome.

Of course, the poker machines didn't go over the Yarra into the leafy neighbourhoods but to the outer suburbs, where cash is funnelled back to build a new empire.

And still the sovereign spins.

McGuire said in 2005: "It's amazing to think that John Wren built what we're now trying to build at the Lexus Centre. We're getting back to his original plan."

Power Without Glory indeed.