A lot of pokies politics was played last week, starting with the ACT Greens calling for $5 bet and $100 loss limits on machines so gamblers are less likely to throw away the rent, mortgage payment or grocery money.
At present, of course, no one is putting anything through the electronic gaming machines in our clubs and pubs due to COVID-19. Chief Minister Andrew Barr’s reluctance to roll the dice like NSW and allow them to get back to trading as quickly as they’d like is provoking a furious response from their lobby groups and friends in the Liberal Party.
With impeccable timing the Greens poured petrol on the fire with their policy pronouncement, a nice bit of brand differentiation as we edge closer to the October election.
Labor Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay may like to highlight how the government has reduced the number of pokies in the ACT (from 5,000 to 4,000) and introduced harm reduction measures but, in truth, Labor is compromised on the issue.
Of the financial disclosures for the 2018/19 election year listed by Elections ACT, cash receipts or in-kind donations from the Canberra Labor Club and the CFMEU were among the largest donations not made by individuals, the Labor investment trust or Electoral Commission funding.
The Labor Club donated $12,895 in free facilities use, while the CFMEU, which is linked to the Tradies Club, donated $11,870 in free facilities use, $550 of gifts in kind, and receipts of $10,181 and $850.
The Canberra Labor Club and the Tradies host most of the territory’s poker machines.
The invidious position Mr Ramsay finds himself in was all too plain to hear when he was asked about the Greens proposal on ABC Radio and talked unconvincingly about the need for yet another conversation with the community before any further action is taken on containing further the unquestioned damage the pokies can wreak on gamblers and their families and friends.
Yes, the pokies are terrible but let’s not rush things.
Then there is that man of the people, clubs and punting stalwart Mark Parton who sneered at the latte-sipping elites for even considering putting more limits on those fun electronic gaming machines hard-working Canberrans deserve to be able to lose their money on.
The Tuggeranong Liberal put a hard edge on his party’s support for getting clubs and pubs back to normal.
At least we know where they stand.
The pragmatic Greens would really like see the back of the pokies but they are more into harm reduction than prohibition, while the issue remains a thorny, intractable one for Labor, which will likely keep kicking the can down the road.
If it were just about their proven, built-in, addictive features, or how they are designed to be a sure bet for the house, or how they proliferate in the country’s less well-off areas, picking already stretched pockets, we’d have blown the damn things up a long time ago.
But they are part of an ”industry”, and as such there are jobs and livelihoods that depend on them, as well as governments that have come to rely on them as a ready source of tax income.
Their role in the community clubs is most insidious because they help fund good works and local sport, as well as the professional outfits.
The odds are that without this ever-reliable, if tainted, income stream businesses might close and community benefits might dry up. At least that is what the clubs say.
They also argue that implementing the Greens proposal would cost thousands of dollars per machine, a disincentive courtesy of the machine makers that should be rectified.
But the evidence about the pokies’ power to create and prey on gambling addicts is incontrovertible, as is their parasitic hold on communities no matter how many shirts they may supply for sports teams.
As the Greens said last week, the original reasons why clubs came into existence have long been subsumed by the businesses they have become. In NSW, the pokie palaces often bear little resemblance to the community-based organisations that spawned them.
In any case, public opinion has shifted on poker machines, much like it has on smoking, confronted as we are with the stark facts. It is impacting on the pokies-based business model and some clubs see not only fewer jackpots in the future but the machines as not the winners they once were.
They are pivoting more towards the hospitality and entertainment sides of the business, and deserve all the support they need to move successfully to a sustainable basis and continue to play a positive role in their communities.
Imagine going into a club and not confronting that whirling dervish of sound as the optimists line up to defy the odds.
But if we can’t rid ourselves completely of poker machines, then it behooves government to limit their damage as much as possible.
The Greens’ proposal, politics aside, is another step in the right direction.