It has been a bad few weeks for the rights of poker machine users.
First, there was the draft Productivity Commission (PC) report which, despite finding there had been a decline in the rates of problem gambling since its last report in 1999, still proposed a whole suite of new restrictions on pokies players.
Yet, even the measures proposed by the Commission were not enough for some of the nation’s least tolerant politicians. Both Family First’s Stephen Fielding and the Greens Rachel Siewert demanded immediate action against poker machines. Siewert wants ATMs ripped out of gaming venues almost straightaway, while Fielding wants the even more drastic action of removing gaming machines entirely from pubs and clubs and corralling them in large gambling halls.
Not only do the intolerant extremes in the Australian Parliament show no respect for the rights of those Australians who enjoy playing the pokies, they also seem to have no interest in procedural niceties, like the period of consultation built into the PC timetable or for the final report due in early 2010.
The next step in the pokie-bashing came a couple of weeks later, when the 7.30 Report ran a story highlighting calls from anti-pokies activists for bans on clubs and pubs providing family entertainment. The argument is that while children are enjoying a meal with their parents or playing in the facility’s play area they are being exposed to the sights and sounds of the pokies.
According to the zealots this is either “inherently dangerous” or plain “immoral”, personally, “far-fetched” seems a better description. One minute your kids are watching Big Ted and Jemima in a Play School concert at the local RSL, and the next they are gambling addicts.
Of course, if pubs and clubs took away all the family friendly food, entertainment and facilities, the same zealots would be attacking them for solely focusing on gaming.
Then, as if to prove that bad news comes in threes, there was the decision of the Victorian Civil & Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to deny the proprietor of the Romsey Hotel the right to install pokies in his pub. Romsey is a small town on the northern fringes of Melbourne, which bears some of the tree-changing demographics of a place like Bundanoon in the New South Wales Southern Highlands, which achieved notoriety earlier this year for its ban on bottled water. The Romsey pub is in desperate need of a renovation to install modern features such as a new family-friendly bistro, and providing a full range of gambling options (it already has a TAB) would be part of this.
VCAT’s Justice Bell actually found that the economic impact of allowing pokies in Romsey would be “slightly positive”, but the social impact would be “strongly negative”, and therefore he rejected the application.
What is remarkable about Justice Bell’s decision is that he concluded that if granted the licenses, gaming expenditure in Romsey would still be below the state, country Victorian and regional levels. However, Bell opined that “not everything you can count counts and you cannot count everything that counts” and proceeded to talk about “wellbeing”. Obviously, Justice Bell’s view of wellbeing was not shared by the drinkers in the Romsey pub. They came out to voice their strong opposition to the supporters of the ban, celebrating in the town’s main street on the day of the decision.
There is some dispute about what the majority view was in Romsey about poker machines, but even if those wanting pokies were a minority one has to ask what on earth makes the majority think that they should be able to dictate to the minority about how they spend their leisure dollars?
Whether it is gambling, or the suite of measures relating to food and alcohol proposed in the National Preventive Health Taskforce report, there is a growing trend for so-called experts to propose “evidence-based” solutions to the problems of society.
Of course, there is an issue with problem gambling, albeit a declining one, and there may be merit in some of the PC’s proposals in relation to it. However, in a healthy society, as many decisions as possible about risk should be made by individuals, and decisions on what risks children should be exposed to should be made by parents.
Instead, we seem to be rushing down a path where these sorts of decisions are made through the political and legal processes. This potentially leaves national policy at the whim of Family First and Green Senators and local policy driven by the sort of articulate, litigious tree-changers who seem to have succeeded in imposing their world view on the potential pokies players of Romsey.