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Xenophon backs “achievable” plan to reduce pokies

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Nick Xenophon has released a watered-down anti-pokies policy, backing a slow reduction in the number of machines rather than a complete ban – but nonetheless, the hotels industry is warning the plan will kill pubs and clubs across the state.

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The former “No Pokies” independent MP told reporters this morning that he wanted a 10 per cent reduction of the state’s poker machines every year from 2019, eventually halving the number operating in hotels across South Australia.

While the Greens – who advocate a complete pokies ban in five years’ time – say the cut-back doesn’t go far enough, the hotel industry warns the policy will be catastrophic for the industry.

The gradual reduction would apply only to venues that already have more than 10 pokies, while smaller venues would instead be the target of a pokies buy-back scheme. The Adelaide Casino would not be affected.

Xenophon said a slow reduction in the number of poker machines would have maximum benefit for the community while minimising the impact on hotels affected by the policy, which is un-costed.

“We’re trying to be realistic and practical and sensible,” the SA Best Leader said at a press conference in front of the Rosemont Hotel this morning.

“We want to achieve change that is achievable, that is practical, that will make a huge difference.”

The Australian Hotels Association has attacked the plan, warning it would “decimate” the industry, and accusing Xenophon of ignoring the “genuine needs” of problem gamblers.

“This plan will decimate hotels across South Australia, wiping out many of the 26,000 jobs it directly creates,” AHA CEO Ian Horne said in a statement.

“It would result in many pubs being completely shut – destroying the concept of the local and ruining the lifestyle so many of us enjoy in this state.”

Horne said that “many dozens” of country pubs would cease to exist and the clubs sector would be wiped out by the policy, which Xenophon described as a “deal-breaker or deal-maker” if his party holds the balance of power at next month’s state election.

“To address the issue of problem gambling by ripping the guts out of an entire industry, giving up thousands of jobs and hurting so many South Australian owned businesses is completely reckless and unwarranted,” Horne said.

“Let’s actually focus on facts and those who can benefit from support services to address problem gaming.

“Using the State Government’s own formula, combined taxation revenue from gaming machines in SA is the equivalent of employing nearly 3100 teachers or nearly 3000 nurses, 2350 police officers or more than 1400 doctors.”

Clubs SA CEO Mike Penfold said the state’s clubs in existed on “a knife-edge”, with 49 per cent suffering “severe financial distress”.

“One of the key changes being proposed, the $1 maximum bet, will cost literally millions of dollars to implement – money clubs simply don’t have and can’t afford to borrow – money that simply won’t go back to the community,” said Penfold.

“No research or analysis has been done.

“No-one knows what will happen and clubs don’t have the financial capability to overcome any more hurdles.

“It’s an extremely serious threat and, importantly, there’s no proof the changes will help problem gamblers at all.

“It’s an unnecessary experiment we just can’t afford to be part of.”

But Xenophon argued the industry’s resistance to the policy demonstrated that it would be effective.

 “The fact that the Hotels Association and the pokies barons will be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions campaigning against this says it all,” he said.

“They’re more worried about our plan than any other.”

 The SA Best policy also includes cutting the highest individual bet at poker machines to $1, reducing the maximum jackpot to $500 and converting state pokies licences from permanent to seven-year permits.

Xenophon hinted that the plan was the first in a “two-stage” strategy and that a complete ban would be an issue for the 2022 state election.

“We need to get to limited licences first, and that will be a big issue for the next state election,” said Xenophon.

“This is a two-stage approach.”

Asked what the policy would cost taxpayers, Xenophon said he had not asked the Parliamentary Budget Office to model it because it was too large and complicated to complete in time for election day on March 17.

But he said both the Labor and Liberal parties had a history of being able to find money for a new policy if the politics of the day demands it.

“It would be a huge exercise of modelling … it is not a reasonable task to undertake at this point,” he said.

“To speculate on a figure (the cost of his policy) would not be the right thing to do, but the right thing to do is to reduce harm caused by poker machines.

“Governments and … alternative governments always seem to find money if there is political will.

“Just yesterday we saw the Premier (Jay Weatherill) say that he’s got $2 billion for an infrastructure fund.”

He added: “The Opposition has got money for a whole range of projects that will cost hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“We can’t have the budget bottom line being balanced off the backs of the vulnerable and the addicted.”

Xenophon suggested that reducing the number of State Government ministers, the number of state MPs, the number of ministerial cars and the number of spin doctors working for the Government was “the sort of thing that we could actually achieve some decent savings from in the first place”.

He said that his poker machines policy needs to be “modelled appropriately by the independent gambling authority, getting the appropriate economic modelling and research, and expertise” before it can be implemented.

But he cited a report from the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies to back the notion that pokies are a “job-killer”.

“Pokies, in net terms, are a job killer,” he said.

“A million (dollars) spent on retail creates six jobs and a million dollars spent on cafés and restaurants and takeaway food places creates double the number again.”

Xenophon said the casino on North Terrace would be exempt from the policy because more “damage” is being caused elsewhere.

“Having a stand-alone casino, which is in … a central location, where it’s all about going to gamble, is a bit different from having it on your street corner and in your community – that’s where the damage is being done,” he said.

Greens MLC Tammy Franks said Xenophon has gone from “the ‘No Pokies’ politician to the 8,000 pokies politician”.

“‘No Pokies’ was the very reason that Nick entered politics in the first place. But twenty years and three parties later, the ‘No Pokies’ pledge has been watered down to a ‘some pokies’ panacea,” she said.

“I see no reason for Nick to abandon this core value at a time when a total phase out of gaming machines is looking set to happen in Tasmania, where the Greens, Labor and Jacqui Lambie are all on the same page.

He’s gone to water on pokies today.”

But SA Best candidate for Croyden and convenor of Pokies Anonomous SA Julia Karpathakis said her party’s plan was better than the Greens’ policy to completely ban pokies because it would do less damage to hotel workers.

“(For) the pubs and the clubs, the damage won’t be so sudden,” she said.

“The Greens have said that they’re going to just get rid of them – well, we’ve got a good plan so that we don’t harm the people that work there as well.”

Alliance for Gambling Reform spokesperson Reverend Tim Costello said Australia has a problem with poker machines like the United States of America has a problem with guns.

“Australia’s blind spot is pokies, like America’s blind spot is guns,” he said the veteran anti-pokies campaigner.

“Why? Because we have 20 per cent of all the world’s pokies, doing huge damage.”

He said that while his organisation doesn’t “tell people how to vote”, it would back any policy that reduces the pokies-related harm.

“SA is the largest hotel-dominated pokies business on the mainland,” he said.

“All these parties putting pokies on the agenda and (committing to) winding them back are doing a really good thing.

“Whether it’s Greens (or) whether it’s SA Best, the rolling back of the pokies damage is fantastic.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article said South Australian Council of Social Services had backed the notion that pokies were a “job killer”. The report was in fact from the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies.

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