Gambling reform advocates say the coronavirus crisis provides a chance to break the poker machine industry’s hold on Australian society, but warn the shutdown also presents dangers through increased online wagering.
The COVD-19 crisis is causing widespread economic chaos, but the closure of the multibillion-dollar poker machine industry is actually helping Australian gamblers save $34.2 million a day.
Some campaigners say this in itself is an economic stimulus that could be continued by reducing machine numbers and bet limits once the pandemic passes.
Although staff at casinos and clubs are suffering from the loss of work, Alliance for Gambling Reform chief advocate Tim Costello says research shows that $1 million spent on hospitality creates 20 jobs, whereas the same amount going through the pokies creates just three.
With those figures in mind, ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has offered community clubs in Canberra $15,000 to hand back poker machine licences instead of re-opening them once the shutdown ends.
The cash incentives would go to re-training and supporting staff through the transition from gaming.
The Alliance for Gambling Reform is starting a petition to back up the ACT action and calling on state governments to introduce similar measures as part of coronavirus stimulus packages.
Reverend Costello says the stimulus package from the GFC resulted in gaming bodies aggressively targeting gamblers who were receiving cash cheques from the government.
He believes this time governments should have the courage to stand up to the poker machine lobby and impose new rules on bet limits and machine licences, saying business as usual cannot be justified when money is tight.
“We mustn’t [go back]. The truth is that pokies have been our blind spots, like guns have been America’s blind spot,” Reverend Costello said.
“We look at them and can’t believe how mad they are.
“The rest of the world looks at us and says $13 billion a year lost, 20 per cent of the world’s pokies. How could they?
COVID-19 is an opportunity to see a fog lifting and seeing clearly about things that just have to change. And this is one of them.’’
Australian casinos and poker machine hubs were among the last hospitality venues to be closed down because of social distancing laws.
Reverend Costello says politicians are so captured by the gambling dollar that he fully expects them to be the first to re-open despite the harm that will be done in the aftermath of an economic crisis.
“Yeah, of course they will … You watch how high the pollies jump on them … The 2007 Productivity Commission report on gambling found that 45 cents in every dollar going through a machine comes from someone addicted.
“Which is why gamble responsibly is just nonsense. It’s like saying use heroin responsibly. Really?”
Reverend Costello says the lobbying that “bought” the Tasmanian state election and helped defeat the ALP’s plan to ban poker machines means it’s up to the public to demand reform.
“The overwhelming majority’s view should prevail. And every survey on pokies … show 70 per cent of the population don’t want them. And so we say, well, how are they still here?
“Because they’ve literally captured the political parties … with this much easy money at stake for them.”
There’s also concern that the federal government’s changes to superannuation laws could enable people to access up to $20,000, which could be blown on online gambling.
There have been signs of an uptick in online gambling, with the racing industry continuing to operate through the shutdown.
Public health policy academics say steps must be taken to rein in online wagering as people look to relieve the boredom and stress of lockdowns at home.
Writing in The Conversation, Associate Professor Charles Livingstone from Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, and Deakin University’s Professor of Public Health Samantha Thomas argued for new measures to restrict bet limits and the use of credit cards for gambling online.
“What we call psycho-social stress is a key driver of high-risk and addictive gambling,” the doctors said.
“There will be few situations more stressful – and at the same time boring – than what we can expect to endure over the coming months.
“One of the acts of a caring and compassionate society is to help people avoid the potential harm that an uptick in online gambling may induce.”
Anti-pokies campaigner Stephen Mayne has also detected a mood for change over poker machines, detailing the move by younger RSL veterans to edge the organisation towards fewer poker machine venues.
“There’s a fair prospect RSL Victoria will also be substantially reducing its pokies footprint if a group of younger veterans are successful in sweeping the board elections at the upcoming AGM in July,” Mr Mayne wrote at michaelwest.com.au.
Mr Mayne added that Victorians who supported pokies-free RSLs should donate to branches like Hawthorn, which has a progressive outlook and is now proudly pokies free.
The other frontline for gambling reformers is sport, with the NRL and AFL still having many clubs who operate poker machine venues.
Reverend Costello says it’s up to the members of sporting clubs to take back control and force change.
“This is what you’ve been seeing with AFL clubs Geelong, Collingwood and the [Western] Bulldogs,” he said.
“They really have said we cannot keep our community licence that we are doing good and [really] be doing damage with pokies.
“The dinosaurs on this are Essendon, Hawthorn, Carlton.”
The NRL, in particular, is facing a wipeout during the shutdown because clubs are so reliant on poker machine revenue and they have also lost games and broadcast rights.
“They are the worst of the worst,” Reverend Costello said.
“When you look at some of those NRL clubs, they are not pokies clubs –they are casinos. They have three to 400 machines.
“They have blown it [their cash] anyway and ripped off the poor in their area. The New South Wales figures are just appalling.”