It's time to pull the plug on the pokies

By Denis Moriarty, group managing director, Our Community

Like many of us, I've been enjoying watching the Liquor and Gaming NSW inquiry into Crown Resorts. Billionaire James Packer is getting a fair bit of stick, and it's always fun to see the great and famous having to cop a stern lecture while pretending to smile. While fun to watch, though, the inquiry does seem to be an enormously expensive exercise in missing the point.

Crown is being accused of breaching its agreements with the regulators, of encouraging Chinese high rollers, of allowing Packer undue influence, of breaches of money laundering rules. I'm sure that these are all very bad things, but none of them compares with the harm Crown does every day operating exactly as it's supposed to.

Packer may, as the inquiry's counsel suggests, be unfit to run a casino, but let's face it: if Martin Luther King, Francis of Assisi and Behrouz Boochani had licences to run thousands of poker machines they wouldn't be able to do much better. Some things are just intrinsically awful. If the pokies were just a bit of harmless fun, Packer would have a nice house in the suburbs, not a Los Angeles mansion, and two-year-old Kia, not a $200 million superyacht.

The point is that the fun is not harmless. The profit margin in pokies comes from the 15% of users who can't stop. They're holding the whole juggernaut up.

Poker machines offer the illusion of hope to people who've been starved of hope. The people who feed in the coins are blue-collar or unemployed, which is why the machines cluster in poorer suburbs and towns. The 15% of users who are problem gamblers come from the same demographic. A typical thousand-dollar-a-week pokies habit isn't funded by dividends from a share portfolio or pocket money from a family trust.

The cash required to feed an addiction has to come from somewhere, and often enough, that somewhere is theft - theft from families, employers, friends. Even not-for-profits aren't immune - just ask the hospital charity or netball club or disability service that's been the victim of gambling-related fraud. If casinos aren't charged with knowingly receiving stolen goods, it's simply because they never ask any questions.

imageOur Community's Denis Moriarty

Still, most not-for-profits are stressed out not by the occasional embezzlement triggered by gambling addiction but by the continual pressure on their services from people who have been driven by gambling into poverty, family breakdown, despair, or homelessness. You might then wonder why other not-for-profits - the RSL, most prominently, but also a number of football clubs - have their own poker machines churning out misery on an industrial scale.

Naturally, I support the reformers who want to get the RSL out of this unholy bargain, but I can see why it's easier to look away and take the money. Without pokies, these clubs would have to argue their case to the public and seek its support for their work. As would Australia's governments, if they ever decided to give up on the fiction that they raise more money through taxes on gambling than they spend on fixing the social harms caused by gambling in the first place. Driving people into destitution and reliance on government services is an expensive business.

Dammit, when COVID shut down the pokies, the Victorian RSL had a 60% drop in veterans seeking assistance. How does it make sense to raise money to fix the problems caused by you raising money?

Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner told me that permitting casinos was her greatest regret from her time in government. Since then, the sky has been darkened by chickens coming home to roost. Let's just stop.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of OurCommunity.com.au, a social enterprise helping Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

What Our Community thinks about other big issues

This commentary also appears as part of a monthly column series that is published in 160 rural and regional titles across Australia, from daily newspapers such as the Bendigo Advertiser and the Illwawarra Mercury, to weekly publications such as the Goulburn Post, the Cootamundra Herald and the Jimboomba Times.

We're proud to take a stand on progressive issues, which we're able to do as a social enterprise that's not tied to the purse strings of any government or corporate organisation.

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