Gambling

12 May 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a surreal world for all of us—a life none of us imagined we would be living. When Australians finally come out of this crisis, many won't want to return to business as usual. Most of us want a fairer, more equitable and just society. And that's a world that doesn't include poker machines. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused upheaval and heartache across the globe, but there have been silver linings as well. One hundred and ninety-four thousand poker machines were turned off in March, as pokies venues and casinos shut down across the nation in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The flashing lights have dimmed, and the unmistakable, relentless chimes of the machines have finally fallen silent.

With the flick of a switch, the extreme harm caused by pokies has been stopped—stopped in its tracks—though not because state governments phased them out in recognition of the harm they cause our society, such is the deep addiction of various state governments beholden to pokies barons and conflicted by being both a regulator of these insidious machines and the beneficiary of the tax revenue pocketed from them. We need to be reminded that our major parties are both content to continue receiving political donations from the gambling industry, which is nothing less than dirty money.

Australia has far more poker machines per person than any country in the world—any country in the world—excluding casino tourism destinations like Macau and Monaco. New South Wales alone has nearly 10 per cent of the world's poker machines. Collectively, Australia has 20 per cent of the world's machines—and that's nothing to be proud of, especially when you think that many are concentrated in areas that include some of the nation's poorest pockets. Australia ranks No. 1, with the highest gambling losses per capita worldwide, around $1,400 per person, which literally makes us the biggest losers across the globe. Despite these alarming statistics, there has been a push to turn the pokies back on, with reported secret plans to reopen venues to be presented to the national cabinet. This is not a game. We must take stock of what they have cost our community and what we have gained with their shutdown. $24.9 billion was lost by Australians in the 2017-18 year from gambling, with over half of these losses coming from pokies. That's $12.5 billion down the slot. The only winners are the rapacious pokies venues.

Sports betting, by comparison, represents $1.2 billion of losses in the same year—a big number, but still dwarfed by pokies losses. Online gambling has been on the rise since the pandemic hit, with opportunistic online gambling sites bombarding stay-at-home Australians with intrusive social media ads offering bets on everything imaginable. In the absence of competitive sports, you can still bet on the greyhounds and horse racing, not to mention the more obscure options such as darts, the weather, Belarusian soccer and MasterChef, to name just a small handful. However, people who gamble online are a very different cohort to those who gamble on pokies, and the losses on pokies far and above outweigh online gambling losses.

The social costs of gambling are also enormous, with direct connections, in many cases, between gambling, domestic violence and mental ill-health. A 2017 study of the social costs of gambling harm commissioned by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation found that the cost of gambling harm was a staggering $7 billion over just one year—and that was just in Victoria alone. Doing the sums, this adds up to $2.2 billion in family and relationship problems; $1.6 billion on emotional and psychological issues, including distress, depression, suicide and violence; $1.3 billion in financial losses through, for example, excessive spending on gambling, bankruptcy and illegal offshore gambling; $1.1 billion in other costs to the government, such as research, regulation and professional support services, including mental health and homelessness services; $600 million on lost productivity and other work related costs; and $100 million on the costs of crime, including to businesses and the justice system. Extrapolated across the nation, the costs would be many billions of dollars more. We can't afford to keep ignoring the facts associated with the harms caused by gambling.

Overall, the forced closure of pokies is overwhelmingly good. Australians are collectively saving over $1 billion every month by having the pokies switched off—$1 billion every single month. That's money that can be instead used towards putting food on the table, and paying for medical bills and utilities, rent and mortgages.

Lockdown has provided people harmed by gambling with a real chance to break their habit, with many reportedly contacting support agencies saying the forced closure has not only been good for their wellbeing but also for that of their families. One woman was recently reported in the media as saying that she was finally able to afford to buy Easter eggs for her children for the very first time because pokie dens were shut.

We have a unique opportunity to help people permanently break away from the hold of these despicable machines. State governments may love the tax revenue the pokies bring in, but they cannot ignore that the shutdown of pokies has had very much a public health benefit well and truly beyond COVID-19. And that was once in the too-hard basket. It has been the circuit-breaker so many gambling addicts have needed. We cannot drop the ball now. No Australian should be put at risk of gambling harm by reopening these venues. To do so is unconscionable.

Of course, we are concerned for workers at gambling venues, many of whom have lost their jobs in the fallout of the current shutdown. They are entitled to safe, stable and meaningful work. Realistically, that kind of work can be found outside of the gambling industry because, despite what owners of pokie dens claim, research suggests it is far more productive to invest in hospitality—where, we know, 20 jobs are created for every $1 million spent on food and meals. Contrast that with a mere three jobs for the same amount lost to gambling. Gambling doesn't add up.

On the other side of the crisis, Australians will need a safe place to recreate social networks. Hospitality staff and entertainers will need sustainable, productive work. Let's rebuild our pubs and clubs into vibrant and thriving social hubs we can be proud of—places that put people and connections first—and offer government assistance that enables pokie pubs and clubs to pull their machines out and replace them with community facilities that will deliver more jobs in two of the hardest-hit sectors—hospitality and the arts.

This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Australia to change course on gambling harm. It's an opportunity that should not be wasted. We know that prevention is better than a cure. It's time to socially, economically and permanently distance ourselves from these vile machines once and for all. To do otherwise will be a crime and a tragedy imprinted in Australia's history forever.

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