Former NSW deputy premier Trony Grant was advised in May last year to make public “as soon as possible” a landmark gambling harm report that recommends banning a controversial poker machine feature that was the subject of a Federal Court battle involving billionaire James Packer’s casino company Crown.
But the NSW government sat on the report until October this year – almost two years after it was delivered – despite inquiries from its lead author, University of Sydney gambling researcher Professor Alex Blaszczynski, who “expressed frustration” at the delay.
Lawsuit against poker machines
Former poker machine addict, Shonica Guy, has launched legal action against the “misleading and deceptive” design of poker machines.
The revelations are contained in emails and briefing notes released to Fairfax Media under government information access laws.
In October Gaming Minister Paul Toole finally released the report by the University of Sydney gambling treatment clinic, commissioned in 2013 at a cost of $263,000 and handed to the government in December 2015.
Among its recommendations is banning a controversial feature of poker machines known as “losses disguised as wins”, blamed by experts for fuelling addiction.
Losses disguised refers to when celebratory music and graphics are played when a player wins an amount, despite it being less than what was gambled.
The government sat on the report as Crown and poker machine manufacturer Aristocrat fought a Federal Court case in which it is alleged the feature is “misleading and deceptive”.
Crown and Aristocrat are defending allegations by a former poker machine addict, Shonica Guy, that a machine called Dolphin Treasure – 38 of which are installed at Crown’s Melbourne casino – is misleading, deceptive and in breach of consumer law. The parties are awaiting a verdict.
A May 2016 briefing note for Mr Grant, who at the time was deputy premier and gaming minister, recommends that he approve release of the report. It says the report “should be published as soon as possible to ensure that it is still current when it is released”.
“The research provides new and important information about the harms related to gambling products,” it says.
“This will be valuable to all gambling stakeholders in Australia. It will ensure that any new initiatives are informed by the latest evidence.”
An October 21 email from a senior Liquor and Gaming NSW official says the report and its recommendation were “sent to the deputy premier on 31 May, 2016, with a recommendation to release the report. However, the deputy premier has not yet advised on the release of the report.”
It notes the Herald had questioned the delay and that Professor Blaszczynski had “expressed frustration” and raised “concerns” including “the lack of updates or rationale provided by the government to date as to the significant delays in releasing this research report”.
An October 31 email between bureaucrats shows an adviser in Mr Grant’s office had flagged the report would be released but was “awaiting necessary authorisations”.
A response on November 3 states: “FYI – I have been informed today that Dr Blaszczynski has inquired with Leanne Perry in my unit as to who he can speak to in order to arrange a meeting with the deputy premier to discuss this issue.”
Mr Grant, who is Police Minister, was dumped as Nationals leader and deputy premier in a reshuffle in late November and replaced as gaming minister by Mr Toole in January this year.
A spokesman for Mr Toole said the report “made a number of legislative, regulatory and policy recommendations which needed be to clarified and further considered by Liquor & Gaming NSW”.
“It was important the government gave due regard to these issues as part of an extensive process of evaluation,” he said.
“There was also a need to draft a formal government response document and for both the report and response document to be considered by cabinet. Once this had all occurred, the report was released without delay.”
The government has said a ban on losses disguised as wins will be considered as part of a broader review of prohibited features on poker machines in NSW, with the timeframe yet to be determined.