Getting in early to stop the spread of the virus would have been good for the community, and from Crown’s perspective good for the company’s floundering reputation, as it faces multiple official inquiries. It would also have demonstrated that even ‘special’ companies have to play by the rules.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told the ABC in Melbourne on Thursday 19th March that Crown casino’s pokie rooms would be exempted from the recently announced 100-person limit on indoor gatherings. He said this was because Crown is a ‘unique’ venue for Victoria. Elsewhere, pokies clubs and pubs continue to operate, with some emulating Crown and shutting down every second machine. ClubsNSW told its member clubs last week that shutting down every second machine and treating every gambling room as a separate space for the 100-person limit, would be a correct response to Covid-19.
On Monday 16th March, a group of Public Health academics (including this writer) wrote to all State and Federal health ministers and gambling ministers pointing out the risks of continuing to allow poker machine venues to continue operating as the Covid-19 epidemic contuse to escalate in Australia. The letter noted that poker machine venues are often frequented by older people, that poker machine use involves repetitive and rapid touching of buttons and screens, that people move frequently and rapidly between machines, and that people with addictive disorders are often not able to exercise rational decision making.
Crown’s Board has been reorganised lately, with a new Chair announced (former Liberal Minister Helen Coonan), but two figures well known to the Public Health community continue to sit as non-Executive Directors. They are Ms Jane Halton, former Secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Health (well known for her role in the ‘kids overboard’ affair), and Professor John Horvath, former Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer. Halton received total remuneration of $197,100 for her role with Crown in 2019 (according to Crown’s 2019 Annual report), and Horvath $310,531.
Horvath sits on the Corporate Responsibility and the Responsible ‘Gaming’ committees. Halton sits on the Risk Management Committee. All of these committees offer ample scope for consideration of the risks and issues associated with allowing large numbers of people to congregate and use gambling machines.
In Victoria, the Victorian Arts Centre, theatres, gyms, pools, and the National Gallery of Victoria have closed. AFL games are cancelled and a number of Universities and some schools have moved to online teaching. Given this, Crown’s reputation for special treatment appeared to remain intact.
On Saturday 21st March, Mr Andrews advised that Crown would no longer be exempt from the rules around places of assembly, and the Prime Minister’s statement after the National Cabinet meeting on Sunday night 22nd March advised that Crown, like other casinos, pubs, clubs and other venues would be shut from midday Monday.
Crown’s initial exemption is interesting, given the public health expertise apparently at its disposal. Given their Public Health expertise, and Ms Halton’s prominence in commenting on the risks of the virus, it’s surprising that Crown continued to operate gambling machines at this time. They might have used whatever influence they have with the company to encourage a great deal more responsibility.
This could have provided a lead to the rest of the gambling industry, which would have been of major benefit. Getting in early to stop the spread of the virus would have been good for the community, and from Crown’s perspective good for the company’s floundering reputation, as it faces multiple official inquiries. It would also have demonstrated that even ‘special’ companies have to play by the rules.
A very important message in difficult times, as officials struggle to get people to take the new rules seriously.
Charles Livingstone, Assoc. Prof.School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Monash University
A version of this article appeared in Croakey.org on 20th March. This version has been altered to reflect multiple policy changes since then.