Pre-commitment policy will punish all gamblers
One of the criticisms of proposals to restrict the use of poker machines is that it will hurt non-problem gamblers in the cause of helping problem gamblers.
MP Andrew Wilkie's insistence that the Gillard government introduce mandatory pre-commitment conditions for playing the pokies is like trying to crack a walnut with an anvil. Yet the Gillard government is prepared to crack problem gambling with a heavy-handed policy proposal because its political survival rests on implementing Wilkie's gambling policy wish list.
Part of Wilkie's crusade against poker machines is motivated by a heavy dose of emotive moralising.
For example, in a letter of appreciation to the GetUp! lobby group Wilkie stated that problem gamblers tore apart families and referred to pokies as the "crack cocaine" of the gambling industry.
If there is any semblance of reasonableness that the Tasmanian MP portrays when making his anti-gambling arguments, it is when he draws from his suitcase the Productivity Commission's 2010 inquiry report on Australia's gambling industries.
Jenny Macklin, the minister charged with implementing Wilkie's policy demands, also has drawn heavily from the PC's analysis when outlining claims about the prevalence and effects of problem gambling.
In a political environment increasingly dominated by demands for policies to be informed by a credible evidence base, an inquiry report packed with big numbers can seem compelling at first glance. The PC stated that the numbers of Australians categorised as problem gamblers averaged about 116,000.
Not to be outdone, there are about 279,000 people the PC characterises as being at moderate risk of forming problem-gambling behaviours.
These numbers suggest that almost two-thirds of people who play poker machines weekly or more are problem gamblers or at moderate risk of becoming so.
The PC also undertook the task of estimating the amount of expenditure by problem gamblers on poker machines, finding that the share of total spending on pokies by problem gamblers averaged 41 per cent.
Read in isolation the PC's numbers have provided powerful ammunition for those groups already predisposed against gambling activities to argue for even greater restrictions.
As the critics of the PC analysis have already pointed out, when viewed in a broader perspective the numbers of problem gamblers in Australia are a small, and falling, minority among the adult population. However, a closer inspection of the PC gambling inquiry report does raise questions about the veracity of the estimates.
For a start there appears to be a lack of statistical weighting in the PC's numbers of the variations in the size of the adult population across the states and territories, and not to mention differences in the availability of poker machines because of population size and other issues such as varying regulatory standards.
Another issue is that the PC has drawn on outdated survey data when making estimates of the lower and upper bounds of problem gambler numbers.
On top of this, there is a mixing of problem-gambling screen survey results as far back as 2001 right through to 2009.
The problem with the use of older surveys is that it might contribute to an overall inflated estimate of the prevalence rate of Australian problem gambling, particularly when couched against later surveys showing lower prevalence rates. If we take the most recent gambling screen survey results and account for state population variations the national problem-gambling prevalence rate is 0.49 per cent of the adult population, or about 75,300 problem gamblers.
Taking into account that the PC believes between 75 per cent and 80 per cent of problem gamblers use poker machines the numbers targeted by the proposed policies drops to between 57,000 and 60,000 people.
What has not been given serious attention is that there are even lower numbers of gamblers who vote with their feet and seek counselling and referral services, arguably the best evidence we have on the true extent of the problem gambling.
Analysis also suggests that expenditures by problem gamblers on poker machines may range between $1.2 billion and $2bn in total spending by Australians of $11.9bn on the pokies, or at least half that presented by the PC.
In fairness, the PC stresses the problems of inconsistent survey and other data repeatedly through its gambling inquiry report and rightly recommends national consistency in the application of problem-gambling prevalence surveys.
However, such warnings appear to have been ignored by Wilkie, who is prepared to advocate a gambling policy that would override the freedom of Australians to use their own money as they see fit, in what is an iteration of the nanny state.
Given the intrusiveness of the proposed policy, including its detrimental effects on local clubs and pubs, to claim that "near enough is good enough" on the evidence base just doesn't stand up to scrutiny.