28 May 2020
By Rev Tim Costello
Chief Advocate, Alliance for Gambling Reform
By allowing poker machines to reopen on 1 June, the NSW Government is squandering its best opportunity in decades to truly reduce gambling harm in the state.
Yet we don’t know this officially. There has been no media releases or Public Health Orders put out by the NSW Government confirming poker machines will reopen on 1 June. But Clubs NSW clearly feel so confident that this will be the case that they placed an “exclusive” story with the SMH on the weekend.
Exactly who is making decisions on public health in NSW? Is it the government or the gambling industry?
It’s absolutely disturbing to think that an industry involved in a product that ruins lives is apparently dictating public health policy in NSW. This is akin to letting the tobacco industry decide what should be the legal smoking age, or allowing the proverbial foxes to rule the henhouse. Dare we say it’s like letting the Ruby Princess passengers disembark without testing?
Since poker machines were switched off on 23 March we at the Alliance for Gambling Reform have been advocating for them to be the last thing returned to operation due to the tremendous risks of gambling harm after such a long period of ‘cold turkey’ for many people experiencing gambling issues.
Our social media pages and talkback radio have been flooded by people begging for poker machines to be kept switched off. These stories include an ex-soldier in his 30s saying he feels safe for the first time since he was 18 as he is no longer at risk of succumbing to the call of the pokies at his local, and the mother who for the first time in more than a decade is not worrying about her son dying by suicide after spending his income as soon as he gets it on the pokies. We’ve even heard simple tales of people being able to buy Easter Eggs for their kids for the first time in years.
Yet apparently poker machines, which involve the repeated touching of buttons and doubtless spreading of germs, are being allowed back on. Meanwhile apparently a family can’t take their children to the cinema or return to a place of worship in their usual manner. Why is that?
We are additionally deeply concerned about a lack of preparation by the NSW Government for the inevitable tsunami of gambling harm that will occur when poker machines are switched back on.
The people of NSW have saved more than $1 billion since poker machines were switched off, and continue to save $18.1 million per day while they remain off. That is how big of a problem poker machine losses are in NSW; that is how much they drain from the pockets of families and the local economy.
Gambling harm is undoubtedly a public health crisis, with connections to mental ill-health, family violence, and homelessness. It is absolutely irresponsible to ignore this when COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues.
I’m devastated to say that the NSW Government is squandering the biggest opportunity it has ever had to address gambling harm by capitulating to Clubs NSW and the gambling lobby’s demands to reopen. For the first time in more than 60 years there was a real chance to drastically reduce gambling harm in NSW, the state that has 35 percent of the entire world’s pub and club-based poker machines.
In wasting this opportunity and caving into Clubs NSW and the Australian Hotels Association, the government are massively disadvantaging the majority 86 percent of NSW pubs and clubs that do the right thing and operate without poker machines. They are prioritising a lazy, parasitic business model that causes tremendous harm.
If anything, the NSW Government should be favouring and supporting pubs and clubs without poker machines -- every $1 million spent with them equals 20 jobs versus only 3 in gambling venues.
That is just one of the very valid economic arguments for keeping poker machines closed. Based on data released in March, the losses on poker machines in NSW clubs alone in 2019 could finance the NSW Government's entire COVID-19 support package, estimated at $3.3 billion, whereas $3.968 billion was lost on poker machines in NSW clubs.
Then there are the budgetary pressures the public health impacts mental ill-health, family violence and homelessness bring. It makes sense for the NSW Government to seriously consider real gambling reform to not only reduce the societal impacts of gambling harm, but the financial ones too.
Both public health experts and the Productivity Commission have repeatedly called for shortened operating hours, a banning of loyalty schemes and a $1 maximum bet to reduce gambling harm.
It is absurd and dangerous that venues are allowed to open 20 hours per day, and we don’t want people who have just had a nine week imposed break on gambling to be lured back in via loyalty schemes. A $1 maximum bet would also dramatically reduce the risk of people losing thousands of dollars in a day. Or in the case of NSW, up to $1,200 per hour!
Enacting these reforms now will prevent gambling harm from happening and will undoubtedly improve the lives of people vulnerable to machines that were designed to addict them.
Premier Berejiklian has most certainly fumbled the ball in allowing poker machines to reopen on 1 June, if that is indeed true. But she still has the opportunity to win the game, to help individuals and families, and to save lives by implementing gambling reform. The COVID-19 crisis is far from over, and rebuilding is another critical stage that must be handled with strong leadership. We implore Ms Berejiklian to once again listen to the experts when it comes to saving lives.