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The poker machine debate

By Malcolm Colless - posted Wednesday, 27 April 2011

If we are going to have a serious debate about poker machines let's open the issue right up and not be conveniently selective in addressing the community impact from this very popular form of gambling.

It seems to me that there are some very fundamental issues missing from the debate which must be included if it is to have any purpose.

At the moment the debate is squarely focussed on the issue of problem gambling and how governments, or more to the point the Gillard federal Government, can legislate to save addicted gamblers from themselves by pre-committing how much they will bet in a stipulated period. This is being driven by independents, Andrew Wilkie from Tasmania and South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, in the fuzzy and confusing world of a minority Labor Government.


This is a bit like mandating that smokers can only buy one packet of cigarettes a day or limiting drinkers to one bottle of wine or a couple of bottles of beer. It puts the casual participant into the same classification as the addict. While the advocates of this strategy take comfort from the high moral ground it is a costly policy which would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce.

And more importantly it misses the point and that is the link between poker machine gambling and anti-social behaviour.

NSW, the most populous state, was the original home of poker machine gambling with this activity confined to clubs which use some of the profits from this to subsidise facilities for their members and support local community causes.

With southerners flocking over the border to support this gambling opportunity Victorian Labor Premier, Joan Kirner, attempted to stem the flow and boost her own state's floundering economy by legalising poker machines in 1992. By the time she lost office later that year there were 10,000 poker machines in Victoria. And by the time her successor, Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett, capped poker machine numbers in 1999 there were 30,000 machines in Crown Casino and in pubs and clubs across the state feeding a multi-billion dollar gambling habit.

Meanwhile the powerful NSW hotels lobby successfully pressured the state government to allow its members to offer poker machine gambling something which coincided with what amounted to around the clock pub trading hours.

In 2004 both Kirner and Kennett (who by then was also out of office) agreed that there should have only been casino licences for poker machines. But the cat was well and truly out of the bag by then.


And in NSW the massive revenue stream flowing into state treasury coffers from virtually uninterrupted pub poker machine gambling is a major deterrent to turn back the clock.

What needs to be addressed here is the link between gambling, extended pub bar trading and a dramatic rise in serious anti-social behaviour. And this appears to be glaringly absent from the current debate on the price of poker machine gambling.

Except for a token closure period over a 24 hour cycle, in NSW for example, the fact is that while pub bars are trading so are the poker machine rooms which conservatively account for around 40 per cent of hotel revenues. No wonder they fiercely opposed suggestions that pubs should close at 3 am!

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About the Author

Malcolm Colless is a freelance journalist and political commentator. He was a journalist on The Times in London from 1969-71 and Australian correspondent for the Wall Street Journal from 1972-76. He was political editor of The Australian, based in Canberra, from 1977-81 and a director of News Ltd from 1991-2007.

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