The game's up, Mr Dice Guy, your cards are on the table

Packer's claim that Crown is helping problem gamblers lacks credibility, says Stephen Mayne.

Packer's claim that Crown is helping problem gamblers lacks credibility, says Stephen Mayne.

JAMES Packer may no longer be Australia's richest man but with about $5 billion, he's still travelling nicely. And, like his late father Kerry Packer, James has continued the family tradition of profiting from businesses that are heavily regulated and licensed.

Channel Nine was Kerry Packer's biggest earner and James was able to cash in spectacularly after John Howard liberalised foreign ownership restrictions on free-to-air television licences.

This allowed PBL Media to be sold to a foreign private equity firm for an inflated $5.5 billion.

It will be interesting to see how effective James Packer is at fending off the coming federal reforms, which will reduce revenue from his 2500 poker machines at Crown. Packer launched a PR offensive against the proposed pokies reforms last week. Packer's speech criticising the Gillard government was leaked to the Murdoch press for some front-page treatment last week on the morning of Crown's annual meeting. He also went on radio and TV.

So what did we learn from this burst of Packer publicity? The ASX announcements presented at the Crown AGM were at one level coherent and detailed, but they were also spun. They ignored the proliferation of dangerous poker machines at thousands of venues across Australia.

And what is the relevance of Crown's $2.2 billion investment program at Burswood in Perth and Crown Melbourne when this is primarily focused on attracting Asian high-rollers who play baccarat? These players lost more than $500 million last financial year.

And it should be remembered that a clear majority of Packer's $1.344 billion in so-called ''main floor'' player losses came from table games, not pokies.

The proposed Wilkie reforms will not change the unlimited nature of punting on Crown's many and varied table games. And don't forget the Brumby government approved Crown expanding its table games from 350 to 500 in 2009.

That said, Crown's 24-hour operation and 25,000 daily visitors means it has the most lucrative pokies in the country, with losses averaging more than $150,000 per year on each of its 2500 machines.

ALH, a joint venture between Woolworths and billionaire Bruce Mathieson, is the biggest Australian pokies operator, but even it only extracts about $125,000 a year in losses on machines in Victoria, its biggest and highest yielding state.

So just how credible was Packer's claim to Crown shareholders that ''no one in this country, or in fact the worldwide casino industry, has done more to address problem gambling''?

He then went on to quote a few statistics about what happens at Crown - 3000 players have self-excluded, for example.

But were the figures really that impressive when Australian punters have lost more than $6 billion at Crown's riverfront operation since it opened?

Senator Nick Xenophon last week blasted ''Play Safe'' as a tool to increase gambling losses because signing up increases the maximum bets, and when limits are hit the gambler can keep playing but Crown simply stops giving them loyalty points.

It seems that rather than Crown's voluntary pre-commitment scheme saving problem gamblers from themselves, Packer has pursued an approach of using it to create a pathway to even riskier gambling.

Amid last week's publicity blitz, there was no claim that Crown actively uses its sophisticated data on punters to intervene when they get into trouble.

Crown has also been granted a series of exemptions by successive Victorian governments that add to the intensity and danger of gambling. No one else has exemptions from smoking bans or the ability to trade 24 hours.

All of this has added to the Packer family's windfall from its opportunistic 1999 purchase of Crown, which has since lifted operating profits by 163 per cent.

The other point Packer failed to mention was Australians' status as the world's biggest gamblers. Pokies make up a majority of the $20 billion-plus Australians lose punting each year. Yet when substantial reforms are proposed, the best Packer can do is claim there is ''no evidence'' to support them.

This completely ignores the fact the $1 maximum bet and compulsory pre-commitment proposals were recommended by the Productivity Commission after 11 years of research. And the Productivity Commission is Australia's primary evidence-based policy research body.

I'd back them ahead of Packer's self-interested and untested claims about Crown's programs to save gambling addicts from themselves.

Stephen Mayne is a Melbourne journalist.

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