The Guardian • Issue #2038

Blow up the pokies

  • by Anna Pha
  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2038

Photo: Alec Cortez (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Australia has the highest per capita gambling losses in the world – more than double those of the USA. These losses come at a huge social and economic cost to gamblers and their families. They can lead to emotional and psychological harm, domestic violence, bankruptcies, homelessness, broken relationships or even suicide.

Australia has 75 per cent of the world’s pub and club poker machines with $11.4 billion lost on them in the last financial year! NSW is the pokie capital of Australia with just under half of Australia’s 200,000 machines.

“It is the Labor battlers who are being belted by the poker machine operators who are raking in mega profits. It is also these communities suffering most from crime waves that are fuelling poker machine habits,” said Tim Costello, chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform in an article for the Sydney Morning Herald. (07/11/2022)

Gambling takes place in clubs, pubs, casinos, TABs, and online. The industry’s lobbyists wield incredible power over politicians who resist pressure for regulatory reform.

According to Costello, there were an average of 948 gambling ads on free-to-air TV every day in 2021 with 148 ads airing between the traditional family time of 6pm-8.30pm. “Kids are being groomed for a life of gambling and there is a white-hot anger from many parents that we are not protecting them.”

The gaming environment – the sounds, images and design of the pokies – is designed by psychologists with the aim of playing on the addictive and economic vulnerability of gamblers. Alcohol is also present, and in some clubs free drinks are on offer.

Apart from their impact on gamblers, pokies have another sinister side – money laundering. NSW Crime Commissioner Michael Barnes said poker machines offered criminals one of the last remaining safe havens where cash from criminal enterprises could be “cleaned” with virtual impunity. In NSW, the gambling capital of Australia, $95 billion flows through poker machines a year. Today if you walked into a bank with a wad of cash you would be questioned as to its source. No such attempt at oversight in pubs and clubs.


“At the moment serious offenders can enter NSW pubs and clubs, sit down next to patrons in gaming rooms, and openly feed large sums of cash from their crimes into poker machines with no real fear of detection,” a recent inquiry led by the NSW Crime Commission found.

“The lack of traceable data collected by EGMs [electronic gambling machines] means the exact scale of this criminal activity is impossible to determine but it is clear from our investigations it involves many billions of dollars every year.” See page 2 to see how easy it is.

Inquiries into Star and Crown casinos in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast heard evidence of fraud, money laundering and the facilitation of organised crime. The casinos received a slap on the wrist, and continued to operate. The regulatory regimes failed to act decisively.

While there was a dip in gambling at clubs and pubs during COVID, there was a notable increase in online sports betting. Online betting focuses on horse racing and a wide range of sports, both professional and amateur.

Children are being groomed by video games and apps encouraging them to spend real or virtual money. “These games which mimic real gambling are potentially gateways to traditional gambling for young people,” director of NSW’s Office of Responsible Gambling Natalie Wright said.

Beholden politicians

The introduction of mandatory cashless gaming system was foremost amongst the Crime Commission’s recommendations. It is not the first such inquiry to call for reforms. The Productivity Commission’s recommendations back in 2010 included “full ‘pre-commitment’ systems that allow players to set binding limits on their losses” and cashless gaming.

Politicians recoil from serious reform, fearing multi-million-dollar campaigns in marginal seats and loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations by gambling lobby groups. To state governments, they provide a lucrative source of taxation.

The federal Labor government refuses to legislate reforms saying it is a state responsibility.

But the tide seems to be turning. In response to a Tasmanian Liquor and Gaming Commission’s report, the Liberal Party government passed legislation with bipartisan support. This includes precommitment cards and cashless gaming in Tasmanian hotels, clubs and casinos with the aim of minimising harm.

Gambling has become a big issue in NSW in the lead-up to the state elections in March. The state Coalition government says it is considering banning political donations from the industry. It is looking into mandatory cashless gaming.

Labor says it will not accept any such political donations. It plans to introduce a mandatory cashless gaming trial covering 500 of NSW’s 90,000 machines and would appoint an “independent panel” to oversee the trial and make recommendations. This panel would include representatives from the industry! So much for independent!

The Whitlams’ song, Blow up the pokies says it all: “… blow up the pokies and drag them away/’Cause they’re taking the food off your table.”

Assistance is available from Gambling Help 1800 858 858 or Lifeline 13 11 14

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