The Guardian 26 September, 2007

Poker machine
exploitation at crisis level

Peter Mac

When Tim Costello, the brother of the federal treasurer and head of World Vision in Australia, recently told Britain’s House of Lords about the problem of poker machine addiction in Australia, the horrified members of that institution at first believed they had heard him incorrectly.

Poker machines are the most pernicious form of gambling in Australia. Their widespread and uninhibited operation is indisputably linked to crime, neglect of children, domestic violence, family breakdown and suicide.

Australia has the highest rate of poker machines per head of population in the world. With more than 95,000 machines, New South Wales has by far the worst poker machine problem of any Australian state. Sydney’s Canterbury-Bankstown Leagues Club, which has the State’s biggest income from poker machines, has 584 machines. (Western Australia has no poker machines at all, apart from those in one of the casinos.)

Despite some reduction in the number of poker machines, (down from 66,741 in 2003 to 66,223 last November) the average NSW citizen lost $750 last year on the poker machines, up from $660 in 2002.

The total amount lost by NSW gamblers each year is estimated at $10 billion. Almost 50% of this amount is lost by the state’s 250,000 problem gamblers. On average, for each problem gambler another seven people are adversely affected, not counting those who have ended up in jail or are simply destitute because of their addiction.

The licences to operate poker machines are concentrated in the state’s cities, where the profits are potentially greater, and where the problem is therefore most acute. The average resident of the state’s cities lost $800 per person on average last year, as opposed to $700 five years ago.

State governments and the industry

The gaming industry has been accused by Tim Costello of "using their very deep pockets to donate, shmooze, lobby and even employ the services of former state cabinet ministers" to promote their interests at state government level.

Last week the Iemma Government in NSW followed up its recent decision to allow the use of Keno in hotels by announcing that it would allow the sale of lottery tickets in 7-eleven stores as well as in pubs and clubs. The Government also intends to extend the trading hours of hotels.

The NSW Government earns some $4 billion per annum from taxes on gambling revenues, but this is not the only reason for the benevolent attitude towards the gambling industry.

When Iemma was questioned in public about having possibly allowed Keno gaming in pubs because of donations by the industry to the ALP’s electoral funds, he replied angrily that the accusation was "absolute rubbish".

However, the figures for both major parties paint a different picture. In the financial year prior to the 1993 election, the NSW ALP received donations of $1.2 million from the hotel industry. Over the last eight years the Liberal Party received donations of approximately $1 million, and the ALP $2.4 million, from 150 hotels.

The Coogee Bay Hotel was the ALP’s biggest benefactor from this industry. The hotel has now been allowed to install special outside areas where patrons can enjoy a smoke while continuing to play the pokies, as have other hotels, despite earlier reassurances by the Government that this would never be permitted.

The Rabbitoh’s proposal

South Sydney Rugby Leagues Club’s 60 poker machines now earn the club in the vicinity of $150,000 per month — about half the club’s income. The clubs two co-owners, actor Russell Crowe and businessman Peter Holmes a Court, are proposing that the club should get rid of its poker machines altogether.

Tim Costello described the idea as "Like someone striking a match in a pitch-dark room".

Holmes a Court has pointed out that since the poker machines were introduced in 1956, the clubs have flourished in poorer areas, and not in the "bloody nice suburb" in which he lives. He claims that there is strong support within the club for getting rid of the machines, and for encouraging a family environment. Other states have flourishing clubs, with no poker machines, and the clubs’ junior sport promotion should be supported directly by governments, not by poker machine profits.

However, Peter Holmes a Court has made it clear that he is not following a moral crusade, just "good business", and that even though the clubs might suffer a short term hit, there will be a longer term effect because of the large number of people who are seeking a gambling-free club.

His proposal is now awaiting approval from the Club’s finance committee, and faces vigorous opposition from members of the Club’s management team, who maintain that few clubs could do without the money from the machines. When asked about the proposal, South’s chairman, Bill Alexiou-Huckner,: snarled "Show us the money!". Others have suggested that the Club’s charity, SouthCares, would be adversely affected by the move.

The proposal has been greeted with great approval from politicians of both major parties at federal level, and even from Iemma himself. However, it remains to be seen whether it will be implemented and, if it is, whether it will survive the test of time.

Gambler stories

Elderly punters often predominate in gaming rooms. The rooms have a palpably hypnotic effect on their victims. The lights and sounds emanating from the machines are soft and rhythmical, and there are no clocks or other distractions. In many clubs there is a service button which, when pressed, will summon a waiter to bring you a drink without you having to leave your seat.

The clubs have opposed smoking bans, because they pose a threat to club profits. Smoking is an addiction which rivals gambling but if gamblers leave the club for a smoke outside it interrupts the trance-like state they experience in the gaming rooms, and increases the likelihood that they will cut their losses and go home.

The problem of poker machine gambling has been highlighted by the cases of 20 Vietnamese Australians who have been caught trying to smuggle heroin into Australia. Some, it is said, have been motivated by their addiction to gambling. Some of these people are in jail, others are awaiting trial, and one is under a death sentence.

The Federal President of the Vietnamese Community in Australia has blamed the situation in part on "bad apples", but has also drawn attention to the factor of problem gambling in many of these cases, and has accused the state government of hypocrisy over the issue.

One club patron recently told a visiting journalist that he had just seen one woman spend $1,200 in a glass-enclosed smoker’s room, and had also been offered sex by another woman after she lost hundreds of dollars.

When interviewed last year one compulsive pokie gambler confessed that he had fed the pokies by starving himself, and had lost 10 kilos over a year. "Once you’re hooked, you’re in this bubble, you can’t see, you can’t hear anything else", he observed pointedly.

The wife of another gambler who had parted with her husband because of his addiction met him on a train one day. He claimed to have no money to buy food so she gave him her housekeeping money. At the very next station he bolted from the train and went off to the nearest club which happened to be very near to the station.

There are many other stories in this sordid and terrible saga.

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