Rev Tim Costello
24 Oct 2022
Almost 20 years ago the Victorian government finally moved to impose closing hours on the state’s poker machine venues.
The laws were far from draconian. Venues were required to close for just four hours a day – which meant gambling could still happen in the wee small hours of the day when those who suffer the most gambling harm are likely to lose the most.
But the laws were ineffectual and larger operators exploited a loophole to allow people to continue to gamble 24 hours a day.The problem was that the laws never stipulated what the closing hours should be – simply that they needed to be closed for four hours. Poker machine operators who owned several venues simply staggered their closing hours, allowing gamblers to “venue hop”.
The Alliance for Gambling Reform has just released a policy paper that looks at closing hours of poker machine venues. It recommends a sensible, mandatory closing time from midnight to 10am.
Now, with so much evidence of egregious behaviour mounting against the gambling industry (money laundering, fraud, dishonesty, the facilitation of organised crime) the issue of opening hours does not seem such a big deal.However, it is a big deal for two reasons:The first is that despite the fact many people see poker machines as relatively harmless or just a problem for a very few, they are the most insidious form of gambling in Australia.
Of the $25 billion in gambling losses that Australia suffers each year, $11 billion comes from poker machine losses.
The second reason is the lack of action on poker machine opening hours reflects a broader inability or unwillingness for state regulators to hold the industry to account.
Even after the worst imaginable conduct that has been exposed by inquiries into Crown and Star casinos – from Melbourne to Perth – the action taken by regulators is pitiful. Even when inquiries found the operator was no longer fit to hold a licence, they were allowed to trade on. In both cases, the big casino operators have effectively escaped with a fine. And the $100 million fines are not big for a casino – that is the equivalent of less than a month’s revenue.
We shouldn’t be surprised state governments have been captured by the industry. They are addicted to the tax revenue – even though the money coming in is outsized by the harm poker machines are doing across the community. Poker machine related harms impacts individuals, families and communities through physical, social and mental health issues.
But there are two reasons for hope. Firstly, there is the wonderful courage and example of one state.
Tasmania has shown the way with bipartisan backing of a cashless card that sets loss-limits. The gambling industry in Tasmania is furious but it has nowhere to go politically. There is now a golden opportunity ahead of the Victorian election for Premier Daniel Andrews and Opposition Leader Matthew Guy to strike a similar deal. It would be a profoundly effective way to reduce gambling harm in Victoria.
The second reason for optimism is the growing recognition that gambling needs to be tackled at the national level.Independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie has renewed his calls for a royal commission into gambling, and also for a national gambling regulator. I know of many other parliamentarians in Canberra who would be keen to back a federal intervention into gambling.
It is time for a nationally coordinated and spearheaded approach to gambling harm. The federal government must step in and establish of a federal gambling regulator. The industry has successfully divided and conquered the states. Federal intervention appears our strongest hope.
In the meantime, Victoria should follow Tasmania’s lead and finally usher in reform. As a society, we do not need around-the-clock access to pokies venues.