Duncan Fischer, the chief executive of Tattersalls, the very private company that shares a state-sanctioned duopoly with Tabcorp for the operation of all poker machines in Victoria outside of Crown Casino, put in a remarkable performance when interviewed recently for the ABC’s Four Corners program.
Mr Fischer was asked about two leaked Tattersalls documents dealing with a scheme being trialled at 13 gaming venues in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.
Under the scheme, players sign up for a smart card that can be used in any Tattersalls machine.
The card records how much they play and rewards them with points, mainly to buy more time on the pokies.
It allows the company to track individual players between venues, recording how long they play and how much they spend.
One of the reports was titled “What have we learnt?” Tattersalls had learnt it was deriving 57 per cent of its poker-machine revenue from 15 per cent of players, who were spending $100 plus per visit.
“What do these customers look like? i.e., demographic, behaviours, attitudes and psychographics displayed,” the document goes on to ask.
“Once this is understood we will know how best to market to these groups.”
The report contradicted the breezy pitch of Mr Fischer’s own spin that problem gamblers make up only 2 per cent of the population and, well, it’s part of being Australian to love a flutter.
It was hard evidence that backed up the results of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into gambling, which found that problem gamblers contribute a third of the industry’s revenue and 60 per cent of them have committed an illegal act – embezzlement, fraud or even in some case violent robbery – to feed their habit.
But would Mr Fischer admit, on the basis of his own research, that a large proportion of Tattersalls’ riches came from problem gambling. You bet he didn’t.
“I cannot comment on that report, it hasn’t been presented to me” he deadpanned, despite claiming elsewhere that no research was carried out unless he approved it and that the benefit of Victoria’s poker-machine oligopoly was that “it is centrally monitored and controlled”.
It was excellent television, the sort of investigation you aren’t likely to see on any commercial network. Certainly not the Nine Network, whose owner Kerry Packer is also big-time player in Australia’s gaming industry.
In fact Packer’s company, Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd, needs a new name if wants to accurately represent its core business.
PBL now makes the bulk of its profits from gambling, thanks to its acquisition of Crown Casino, Australia’s largest gambling house – and one of the largest in the world – in 1998.
Last financial year Nine Network raked in reported earnings before interest, taxation, depreciation and amortisation of $217.7 million for PBL. Its magazines division, with 60 per cent of the market, made $175.0 million.
And Crown? It delivered PBL a cool $330.9 million.
Now the Packer empire is making moves on Perth’s Burswood Casino, whose high-roller business is seen as a neat fit with that of Crown.
At the end of last month PBL acquired a 15.7 per cent stake in Burswood – moving swiftly after WA’s Gallop Government lifted the 10 per cent shareholding cap, in place since the casino was floated in 1997.
Gaming analysts reckon a takeover bid by PBL is only a matter of time: Packer, after all, didn’t get to where he is today as a passive player.
So expect more uncritical cross-promotion of Packer’s casino interests through plugs on Channel Nine programs like The Footy Show, as well as a studious avoidance of the fact that PBL makes profits from a business that devastates lives and hurts the poor the most.
You think I’m being too harsh? Well, here’s a history lesson.
At the time Packer was consolidating his position as casino king, the Christian Television Association in Victoria produced a “telespot” highlighting problem gambling.
The advertisement showed a group of people enjoying an evening at a casino.
Initially they are laughing and having fun. But one member of the party loses more and more money as the night unfolds.
As the reality of his night out hits home, the colour drains from his face and the TV screen, leaving the sound of a heartbeat, the roll of die and Christ’s words: “Where your treasure is, that’s where you’re heart will be.”
Channels Seven and Ten were willing to screen the spot. Channel Nine refused.
- Tim Wallace is a freelance journalist – [email protected]