[caption id="attachment_2931" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Andrew Wilkie"][/caption]

The implementation of a major recommendation from a study into gambling forms an essential part of newly-elected Independent federal member for Denison Andrew Wilkie’s agreement to back the government led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The agreement is set to establish a pre-commitment system for all of Australia's 198,000 poker machines by 2012.

The Productivity Commission released a report in June, which showed that of the $11.9 billion Australians spend on poker machines each year, 41 per cent comes from problem gamblers. Although it is difficult to determine an exact figure, it also found that up to 160,000 Australians were suffering severe problems from their gambling.

What the Productivity Commission’s pre-commitment system recommendation entails in practice is the use of smart card technology to either allow or force players to set their spending limits prior to playing poker machines. Once the limit has been reached, the player is shut out of the system for a designated period of time.

World Vision CEO and long-time anti-pokies campaigner Tim Costello has welcomed the pre-commitment agreement struck between Mr Wilkie and the Prime Minister, saying, “This is a very good deal”.

Naturally gaming interests have been less supportive of the arrangement. Hotels associations, for example, argue that the revenue from poker machines is necessary for employment in the industry, and clubs are said to feed money back into the local communities, particularly through sports.

Yet whatever ‘good’ can be spun from the recent proliferation in Australia’s suburbs of what has come to be known as the ‘one arm bandit’, is significantly outweighed by the harm poker machines are causing Australian families.

Certainly the pre-commitment system is not a silver-bullet solution to the issue of problem gambling, but it is a positive step forward in addressing a growing community concern. It does however have to overcome a massive obstacle in the form of the Constitution, as gambling regulation is the responsibility of state governments.

As part of the agreement with Mr Wilkie, Ms Gillard ask will state governments to adjust their gaming laws to make the changes sought, or “look for a legislative way to force them”, according to Mr Wilkie.

That is sure to cause an intriguing and contentious battle, with state and territory governments addicted to the constant stream of revenue generated through gambling, and in particular poker machines. This level of government derives about 10 per cent of its annual revenue from gambling tax, which equates to $5 billion.

The motivation to reform the use of poker machines, therefore, is not strong among the states and territories, but it is a battle worth fighting for the sake of problem gamblers and their families.