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'More machines than the whole of Tasmania': New pokie rules fall short, critics say

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New caps on pokie numbers have been touted by the NSW Government as better targeting gambling-related harm in Australia's biggest state. But critics say they do little to dampen the addictions running rampant in areas like Sydney's ethnically diverse western suburbs.

The migrant hotspot of Fairfield will be a “no-go zone” for more pokies, under new regulations that critics say fail to protect the community from a predatory industry that profits from addiction.

The western Sydney council area, where more than $8 billion was pumped through gaming machines last year, counts among the local areas - covering 20 per cent of the state - where pokie numbers will be capped at current levels due to the “high risk” of gambling-related harm.

The announcement follows an SBS News investigation that found millions raked in by the region’s pokie clubs was being used to bankroll lucrative executive salaries and overseas travel to areas including Las Vegas, Hong Kong and Macau.

'Significant' changes to gambling regulation

NSW Minister for Racing Paul Toole described the suite of measures, to be introduced to the parliament on Tuesday, as “the most significant changes to gambling regulation in NSW for a decade.”

“These reforms follow extensive consultation and represent a reset of the way gambling is regulated in NSW,” he said.

“This will mean that communities considered more vulnerable than others to problem gambling will now be a no-go zone for additional machines.”

But the changes have been greeted with dismay by the Alliance for Gambling Reform, which said they amounted to little more than tinkering at the edges and failed "to protect ordinary people and continuing to deliver for a predatory industry which makes obscene amounts of money from an addictive product.”

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Call for freeze on pokies in 'vulnerable' areas
Call for freeze on pokies in 'vulnerable' areas

“We welcome the cap on machine numbers in the worst affected areas, but really these areas need machine numbers massively reduced,” the alliance’s NSW spokeswoman Allison Keogh said.

“Councils like Fairfield already have more machines than the whole of Tasmania.”

Fairfield is the most disadvantaged part of Sydney, according to ABS data. More than half the population was born overseas and more than 70 per cent speak a language other than English at home.

Pokie cap a 'minor' gain

Ms Keogh said that the “minor gains” such as the pokie cap were offset by other changes that amounted to an industry wish list, including making it easier for clubs to create chains of venues that she said did more harm than a single site.

It was a sentiment echoed by Fairfield mayor Frank Carbone, who expressed concern that a new provision allowing smaller venues to lease machines - or unused machine entitlements - to other local clubs would “no longer facilitate a reduction of EGMs [electronic gaming machines] in our city.”

Under the previous system, clubs were only able to sell machines to other venues. One out of every three machines was required to be forfeited to the government in the process.

“The leasing provisions will centralise EGMs by transferring them from small venues with low expenditure to other locations in our city that generate higher gambling turnover,” Mr Carbone said.

Critics say new caps on pokie machines in NSW will not curb addictions.
Critics say new caps on pokie machines in NSW will not curb addictions.
flick.com/Michael Coghlan

Increased fines for operators 

But NSW Minister for Racing Paul Toole defended the changes as striking the right balance between the needs of the industry and community. They also included a tenfold increase in fines for operators offering illegal inducements to gamble, removing the role of clubs in the distribution of community grants related to gaming, he said.

“From today, the number of poker machines in Fairfield, for example, will be capped,” Mr Toole said. “It can go no higher.”

The number of pokies in Fairfield and other areas could increase in the short term, he conceded, with existing applications to be assessed under the old system instead of the new rules.

Clubs NSW chief executive Anthony Ball said it was satisfied with the government’s review of the way gambling-related harm was assessed.

“Ultimately, it needed to weigh up the interests of the industry against any potential for community harm and on that score the government has got the balance about right,” Mr Ball said.

"What we can say following today’s announcement is that New South Wales remains the best regulated jurisdiction in the world when it comes to poker machines."

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