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Pokies venues bet on community goodwill over gambling revenue

Carol Bennett

16 Apr 2024

Faced with inaction from government, some pokies venues are taking matters into their own hands to stem community losses from gambling, writes Alliance for Gambling Reform CEO Carol Bennett.

There is a growing backlash against gambling in Australia.

Across Australia’s eastern states, clubs and pubs are increasingly shunning poker machines.

In some cases, it’s a response to falling revenue, but mostly it is a response by clubs and pubs to the growing anger across the nation about the intolerable and devastating gambling losses we all pay a price for.

Australians lose more to gambling than any other country on a per capita basis. Our losses top a staggering $25 billion every year – and poker machines (in our pubs and clubs alone) account for more than $14 billion of these loses.

More than 15 years ago, Sydney’s Petersham Bowling Club ditched its poker machines in favour of community events such as country music hoedowns, spring fairs and craft beer festivals, leading to a 900 per cent increase in revenue.

In the Illawarra region south of Sydney, the Coledale RSL club had shut its doors forever – then a group of locals stepped in and sold off the pokies. The club has now become a thriving community hub.

Our political leaders talk a lot about the importance of reducing gambling harm in the community.

However, the simple fact is many of our governments are captured by the gambling industry and addicted to the revenue that poker machines bring in.

That’s what makes the case of the Hastings RSL so significant. And so farcical.

The members of the club on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula took the extreme measure of putting their club into voluntary liquidation – all in an effort to rid themselves of their 50 poker machines and the accompanying state government taxes.

Clubs across Victoria are locked into contracts to pay taxes, known as entitlements, to the Victorian government for each gaming machine. The Hastings club was locked into a new 10-year contract in which the entitlements for 2022 were $1.48 million.

So, the club went into voluntary liquidation. It now plans to reopen as a new community-owned entity – free of the poker machines and the entitlements chained to them.

Of course, the Hastings Club should have been able to divest from its pokies licences without penalty.

The Victorian Government should be providing clubs every opportunity to surrender poker machine entitlements for the benefit of the community, but this is unlikely given the parlous budgetary situation in Victoria. Instead, in the current situation, the minister could transfer club entitlements to hotels which would see higher gambling losses and cause even more community harm.”

"We should expect more from our political leaders. They should do more to curb the terrible harm that gambling causes in our communities."

A government focused on reducing gambling harm would strive to reduce overall pokies entitlements altogether. Revenue from gambling should not be propping up government budgets.

A government focused on community benefit would recognise that many genuine community clubs are proudly embracing no-pokies venues that deliver community entertainment and family benefits to build their membership while offering services the community values.

It is something the Alliance strongly encourages. We have even produced an online map to help people find venues without poker machines.

We should expect more from our political leaders. They should do more to curb the terrible harm that gambling causes in our communities.

Gambling losses create huge debt, family break-ups, domestic violence, and physical and mental health issues, and some research suggests up to 20% of suicides in Australia could be linked to gambling problems.

In term of minimising poker machine harm, we know that one of the most effective solutions is for states to introduce a mandatory cashless card which requires a person to set limits on their losses. Setting these loss limits needs to happen before a person gambles, not when they are in a trance-like state in front of a poker machine that the industry has invested millions of dollars in to make increasingly addictive.

Despite the recommendation of the NSW Productivity Commission that a cashless card would not only curb gambling harm but also tackle the proceeds of crime being laundered through poker machines, the NSW Government has deferred introducing such a card.

Instead, it has decided to go ahead with a flawed and unnecessary trial of a cashless card. It has simply kicked any decision down the road – an outcome that has no doubt delighted the gambling industry.

More broadly, we are now awaiting the federal government’s response to a groundbreaking online gambling inquiry led by the late Peta Murphy. We have been waiting now some 10 months since the federal government received the unanimous findings and 31 recommendations of the Murphy inquiry.

Like most Australians, I want gambling reform now, not tomorrow or next year or next decade.

Governments need to decide whether they are going to back our communities, or back the multinational companies ripping gambling losses out of vulnerable communities and creating misery.

Most Australians want to reduce gambling harm. Our leaders need to serve our interests. That can only happen when governments, like so many community clubs, recognise that reducing gambling harm makes all of us winners.

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