For decades it seems Australian politics, especially in NSW, has been dominated by three major entities – the two major political parties and the gambling industry.
The state has about half of the nation’s slot machines – pokies – in its clubs and pubs. With such ubiquitous accessibility it is no wonder Australia has the greatest gambling losses in the world – 40% greater than the nation that comes second.
This unelected industry has wielded obscene power on Macquarie Street, Sydney’s home of the NSW parliament, acting like a shadow cabinet of its own.
And with a $95bn turnover each year in NSW, it enjoys huge sway.
This is evidenced by Chris Minns’s announcement of Labor’s gambling policy ahead of the NSW election.
On the surface some of Labor’s policies seem to have merit, but dig deeper and you realise they lack real substance. That’s because they don’t commit to the reform that matters most and which Dominic Perrottet has already proposed: the introduction of a universal cashless gambling card that requires pre-commitment to a spending limit.
Minns should have announced that, by the end of his first term, cashless cards would be needed to play pokies in NSW as recommended by the crime commissioner, police commissioner and countless health practitioners. Instead he announced NSW clubs policy to trial a card on just 500 machines over 12 months.
Countless voluntary trials have already shown that when it is not universal, criminals using pokies to launder money move to the 90,000 machines that can be played without a card. So will problem gamblers who will avoid a card out of shame. To be free of shame, it must be universal.
This reform is essential to not only have a dramatic impact on money laundering but also significantly reduce gambling harm, the worst of which occurs in the most stressed areas of NSW and to the people and communities that Labor is supposed to represent.
A loss limit capped at $1500 a day is hardly an infringement on civil liberties.
Why don’t Labor support this?
The answer is politicians remain beholden to the gambling industry, and they don’t want to lose their best customers. There’s a reason psychologists are hired to design poker machines that have addictive qualities: to ensure the maximum possible extraction of money from people. The gambling industry also don’t want to spend the money to refurbish machines to accommodate this new technology.
Labor hiding behind yet another trial is not good enough, especially when we know the industry will ensure they’re represented on the “independent” panel. Trials have already been held in NSW and there is overwhelming evidence from overseas that mandatory precommitment of losses before gambling reduces gambling harm.
Norway is the gold standard since it began its reforms in 2007 by banning slot machines and introducing machines which could only be played with cashless cards, had a mandatory limit on the amount players could gamble, mandatory breaks in play, lower bets, lower prizes and player exclusion options.
All pokies in Australian casinos will now have a cashless card as a result of the shocking crime and predatory revelations in various royal commissions. Tasmania is legislating the universal cashless card on a bipartisan basis. But Minns recommends another voluntary trial to kick the issue into the long grass.
There is merit in some of Labor’s proposed policies. It would be beneficial to have the dreaded “VIP Lounge” signage removed from outside venues, and I naturally welcome a ban on donations to political parties from clubs with poker machines.
But there is much more that can, and should, be done.
A maximum bet on a poker machine in NSW is currently $10, meaning someone can lose up to $200 every minute. This is not allowed in any other state. And only NSW has multiple terminal gaming machines with $100 maximum bets which are casino games in pubs.
The spin rate of machines should also be slowed, and losses disguised as wins should be banned – that’s when a machine dings as if you have won, but you have actually lost, and is one of the most addictive design features.
Labor’s former premier of the NSW, Bob Carr, did a real disservice to the people of NSW when he let poker machines into pubs, drastically increasing the number of communities suffering from gambling harm.
This election is a real opportunity for gambling reform in NSW, and it shouldn’t be squandered.
When you read the comments on social media you can see that people are tired of the stranglehold poker machines and the gambling industry have on their state.
It’s astonishing that Australia’s blind spot is gambling, just as the USA’s is guns. The rest of the world is in disbelief at how one industry could pull this off.
As the Whitlams sang, it’s time to blow up the pokies and drag them away because they’ve taken too much food off far too many tables. Let’s get NSW out of their clutches for good by fighting for real gambling reform policies regardless of who wins the election in March.
Tim Costello is a senior fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity
In Australia, Gambling Help Online is available on 1800 858 858. The National Debt Helpline is at 1800 007 007. In the UK, support for problem gambling can be found through GamCare on 0808 8020 133. In the US, the National Council on Problem Gambling is on 800-522-4700
This article was amended on 23 February 2023 to remove an inaccurate reference to the percentage of slot machines Australia has in relation to the world.