On pokies, it seems NSW Labor stands for social injustice

Rev Tim Costello

9 Nov 2022

In more than 30 years of campaigning for gambling reform, I have not witnessed the anger that now exists at the excesses of the gambling industry.


Everyone I speak to is fed up with being bombarded by gambling ads on our screens. Australia is a virtually unregulated, Wild West for foreign-owned online sports gambling agencies that are registered in the Northern Territory and pay minimal tax.


The latest figures we have show an average of 948 gambling ads ran on free-to-air TV every day last year, with 148 ads airing between the traditional family viewing time of 6pm to 8.30pm. That is a 153 per cent increase since 2016, surpassing advertising spending by the alcohol industry and delivering an ad on our screens every minute of every day. It compares with just 11 gambling ads in Britain.Kids are being groomed for a life of gambling and there is a white-hot anger from many parents that we are not protecting them.


There is anger and dismay at the catastrophic governance failures of Crown and Star casinos. Inquiries in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and the Gold Coast have uncovered evidence of fraud, money laundering and the facilitation of organised crime.


And it beggars belief that, as a result of those inquiries, there were recommendations that the licence holders were unfit to run a casino and yet Crown and Star were allowed to continue operating. We now await the outcome in Queensland.


There is also growing anger at the failure of government to better rein in the excesses of poker machine operators. It is mind-boggling to think $95 billion is turned over through poker machines in NSW pubs and clubs each year. Of the $25 billion Australians lose to gambling every year, poker machines account for $11.7 billion.


For years, it’s been said if people want to play the poker machines, “let them”. If some have a problem, then why should everyone suffer. But the NSW Crime Commission report highlighted the myth of such an attitude.


As this masthead has said, that report is a game-changer that cannot be ignored. It found billions of dollars of dirty money is being funnelled through poker machines. While the commission said there was not enough data to determine just how much was laundered, there was evidence of people committing crimes to feed their poker machine use.


This means poker machines don’t just hurt a few, they hurt us all. They hurt anyone who has been a victim of crime, anyone who has had their car stolen or their house broken into – in fact, anyone who has had to pay higher insurance premiums because of the poker machine-led crime spree.


If NSW, politicians continue to fail to act on the recommendations of the Crime Commission, they are not only failing to protect those who are preyed upon by poker machine operators, they are being soft on crime.


The commission’s key recommendation is a cashless gambling card. A mandatory card would combat money laundering because it would require people to prove their identity, which criminals are reluctant to do, and it would enable people to pre-set a limit, capping their potential gambling losses.


Both the major parties are timid and fearful of the power of the gambling industry, their political donations and their lobbying. But they should be more fearful of an angry public, which is sick and tired of inaction.


NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has at least publicly committed to the introduction of the cashless gambling card. But he is yet to say how he will do it. He has the support of crossbenchers but his Coalition partners in the National Party appear far from committed.


The only state that has moved to implement a cashless gambling card is Tasmania. Ironically, it introduced the same model that was proposed in NSW but was rolled by the industry. The key to foiling the power of the gambling lobby was bipartisanship.


It is extraordinary that NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns has not been stronger on this issue. The suburbs where poker machines do the biggest damage, where countless millions are ripped out of the local community, are in traditional Labor electorates.


It is the Labor battlers who are being belted by the poker machine operators who are raking in mega profits. It is also these communities suffering most from crime waves that are fuelling poker machine habits.


Labor has traditionally been the party of the worker rather than the big end of town. Yet Minns’ failure to offer a bipartisan approach both hurts the worker and puts countless millions of dollars into the hands of a few. It appears, when it comes to poker machines, Labor is the party of social injustice.


Now is the time. There is a critical opportunity ahead of the next election to act. To not sign another Memorandum of Understanding with Clubs NSW but to put in place long-overdue reform.


The anger is building. There are already signs that the next election will see independents running on a gambling reform platform in critical marginal seats across NSW. If the major parties don’t choose to act together for the good of the state, at least they can act in both their own self-interests.


NSW will get a cashless gambling card eventually. The public demand for it will build until it is untenable to ignore. Today is the time for our political leaders to ensure they are on the right side of history.