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Politics of pokies

At Crikey Charles Richardson discusses proposals to restrict poker machines. A Morgan poll released yesterday shows that a majority of Australians want local councils to be able to prohibit pokies on their territory – 57% of Australians favour giving councils the right to ban machines.

Richardson claims that the policy will fail for the same reason that prohibitions by councils on prostitution and alcohol failed. People will simply travel to venues where the facilities are located ignoring local council restrictions. He does acknowledge there are problem gamblers who need help and that government dependence on gaming revenue is unhealthy. But to Richardson a ban would offend personal freedom and be counterproductive.

‘…gambling is a matter of personal choice. We do not normally think that local democracy should extend to prohibitions on otherwise lawful activities. If they can ban pokie venues and brothels, why not mosques or synagogues?’

The ‘freedom of choice’ issues do not make a lot of sense for problem gamblers who cannot control their gambling compulsion but addressing such concerns with restrictions will penalise those who can gamble sensibly. Given the scale of gambling problems in Australia the loss of liberty in restricting sensible gambler’s access to pokies doesn’t worry me that much. The scale of the problem is indicated by statistics collected in the Morgan poll which suggest 10% of Australians (around 1.6 million) aged 14 and over identify gambling as a problem within their family and about 1.6 million who admit they sometimes gamble more than they should.

To the extent that problem gambling is cue-driven, and hence supply-determined as suggested by Doughney, banning machines should alleviate it. And, of course, giving councils the right to make choices does not mean that pokies will be banned. But the strong community opposition to machines suggests this is a plausible outcome. Why not give councils the choice and find out?

Generally I am pleased again that following the initiatives of the Greens and the Liberal Party, gambling is becoming a political issue in Victoria. The Morgan poll should help to make it a national issue.

16 comments to Politics of pokies

  • Sam Ward

    More fascism from Harry. Can you do an article about porn addiction soon? Then the wowser circle will be complete.

  • hc

    Sam, About 57% of Australians on your account must be fascists if giving local councils the right to vote on pokies is the criterion. Even John Howard gets fewer votes than this.

  • Sam Ward

    Harry, most people are not as well read as you. It’s one thing for someone to have a “gut reaction” to a certain issue and vote accordingly. Most people do this.

    It’s another thing entirely to have all the facts in front of you (as you do) and still choose to restrict free will on the basis that the public are a flock of sheep in need of your benevolent shepherding.

    If we enacted every stupid law that could get a 50% majority in a referendum, Australia would be dystopia.

  • hc

    Its interestring Sam that you see pulling a pokie handle as a rational exercise of free will (with full knowledge of all harmful effects) but see the expression of views in an opinion poll on pokies as expressing a gut reaction devoid of thought.

    My guess is that you are probably partly right on the second point. But I am fairly sure you are wrong on the first point. There is a hiuge ammount of psychological evidence that people are not rationally driven when they make gambling decisions. See the vast literature on the ‘illusion of control’ – the idea that you can be ‘lucky’ ex ante.

  • Sam Ward

    “There is a hiuge ammount of psychological evidence that people are not rationally driven when they make gambling decisions.”

    Harry, people are not rationally driven when they make all sorts of decisions every day. Emotion and illusion have a big effect on people in all sorts of areas. This doesn’t mean we should ban everything.

    Examples: Followers of a particular football team always convinced they got the raw end of the umpiring.

    Belief in a higher omniscient power when all the scientific evidence suggests there is no such thing.

    Thinking their baby is the cutest one ever seen etc.

    Should we ban religion, football and babies too?

    Harry the fact is that, rational or not, people gain enjoyment from gambling. Whether they know they are losers or convince themselves they aren’t, it is not the government’s place to tell them they can’t do it.

    I am a professional gambler and so I’ve seen all this first hand. There are much worse things in the world than gambling.

    And like everything else you should realise that people are going to gamble no matter what the law. Gambling – or the willingness to take a risk – is part of what sets ourselves apart from lower life forms.

    It is much better to have gambling in the hands of legitimate businesses than gangsters.

    You’ve been to Thailand. Gambling is illegal there, but illegal card dens are hugely popular – and guarded by men with guns who pay off the cops. Is that what you want in Australia?

  • Sam Ward

    And I should add that I am well aware that pokies are the most idiotic form of gambling.

    (well actually the 2nd most – playing the state lottery is the worst.)

    This is primarily because of a lack of competition in Australia – pokies in Las Vegas pay off nearly as well as table games do (some of the progressive machines pay off even better). This is because there is no monopoly on their supply like there is in Australia.

  • Steve Edney

    Partly on Sam’s last point…

    I’ve never heard this suggested but rather than restrict pokies, why have them all advertise what their expected loss on 1 dollar bet is. This may give incentive for owners to offer better games to entice players and introduce some competition in between venues.

  • Guy

    Agree with Steve’s comment. There are probably some clever ways of discouraging gambling without imposing outright bans.

    On the other hand, if a council bans pokies and you don’t like it, vote them out!

  • hc

    The difficulty with advertising pokie payouts is that the average payout rate is high. Its the fact that you lose a relative small margin each time you pull the handle that makes the wealth of a compulsive player dissappear.

    Pokies are an insidious form of gambling that have almost nothing to do with Sam’s gambling lusts – poker and so on where skill is involved.

    Pokies seem to be incredibly addictive – you become a compulsive gambler quickly- typically after a moderately large win. They cause long-term loss of self-control and also ‘within-edisode’ loss of control – people in the process of gambling find it hard to stop.

    BTW I do hear Sam’s messages regarding loss of liberty. I do strongly favour trying to convince people to take care. But most people know this and yet still lives get ruined and families destroyed.

  • Tony Healy

    Sam, what about the freedom of the gambler’s family and children to receive food, clothing and other essentials?

  • derrida derider

    “There are probably some clever ways of discouraging gambling without imposing outright bans”

    One is by simply making sure the market is informed. Instead of having the machines rings bells, etc every time they pay out (so that those around get a very selective impression of the probability of payout), have the machine say “loser, loser” in a loud lugubrious voice every time it doesn’t pay.

  • Sam Ward

    Tony: “Won’t somebody please think of the children” has been done to death.

    And what you are talking about has nothing to do with freedom.

    Steve says:

    “I’ve never heard this suggested but rather than restrict pokies, why have them all advertise what their expected loss on 1 dollar bet is.”

    I think this is a good idea, but the “WSTOTC” crowd would never allow it. “OH MY GOD, they are allowed to advertise to our kids now!” etc.

    You can’t advertise cigarettes that have lower tar content than other cigarettes, I don’t see why the wowsers would see this any differently.

    And Harry, you are wrong. Pokies are no different to any other casino game. Apart from Poker and Blackjack you are going to be a loser. The only question is how much.

    The popularity of pokies is pretty easy to explain:

    1. They are relatively simple to use.

    2. They don’t take up anywhere near the amount of space that a blackjack table would, bring in more revenue, and you don’t have to pay a dealer.

    3. Because they are so cost efficient, casinos are happy to offer them in low stakes modes (even as low as 20c in the past), so those who don’t really know the game can learn to play without losing their entire paycheque. You don’t see any $1 minimum blackjack tables because that table would lose a casino $40-50 per hour.

    And once again let me repeat that the state lottery is much more insidious (and has an even lower expectation) than pokies.

    The main reason most people hate pokies is simply because they took over pubs that used to have other forms of entertainment (like live bands, quiz nights and the like).

    Fair enough, but the answer to that problem isn’t banning pokies, the answer is to make it easier to open a pub.

  • Sam Ward

    I should add that Perth has managed too have a terrible nightlife industry without any help from pokies.

    As much as Melbournians and Sydneysiders who complain that “pokies have ruined the pub scene”, their pub scene is still 1000% better than Perth’s, which has never had pokies.

  • Tony Healy

    That’s the thing though Sam. If pokies were banned, then pubs would be free to concentrate on the other activites you say make for a better hotel scene.

  • hc

    Sam, You moan about the night life in Perth. Are there not better things to do in an evening than sit in a pub? Indeed – without being deliberately rude – for a person of your obvious intelligence – why focus on dead-end pursuits such as gambling.

    You could always join Greenpeace or PETA or Young Labor. No I didn’t make that shallow jibe.

    Perth is a beautiful city and there is so much to do in terms of enjoying the natural environment, the great beaches and the local people.

    Do pokies add that much to life. I cannot see it. Most who play them look dead miserable.

  • Sam Ward

    “Are there not better things to do in an evening than sit in a pub?”

    Not when you are 30 years old and single.

    “why focus on dead-end pursuits such as gambling. “

    I make my living from gambling and have done for 5 years, so it is certainly not a dead-end pursuit for me.

    “Do pokies add that much to life. I cannot see it. Most who play them look dead miserable.”

    The point of pokies is that they give an additional revenue stream for entertainment venues, which gives them the freedom to experiment with other aspects of the business without fear of going broke.

    They are also the lifeblood of community organisations like bowling clubs, cricket/football clubs and RSLs in the east – organisations which simply don’t exist in WA.

    I’ve been a member of a community cricket club for 10 years. Despite having 60+ members we – because of liquor restrictions and other regulatory hurdles – struggle to keep our bank balance between zero and five thousand dollars from year to year.

    If we were based in Melbourne we would be a million-dollar organisation because of pokies, and would have quality equipment, bowling machines and a curated turf pitch rather than concrete and mats we use now.

    We charge $300 per player per year and this money is not enough to pay for nomination and umpires fees and equipment. We survive on the takings of our (unlicensed) bar and it is only because we have a large amount of heavy drinkers that we manage to keep our heads above water.

    Being a predominantly working-class club, many of our members are big gamblers, and because of WA’s laws they are forced to do their gambling at Kerry Packer’s Burswood Casino (the only establishment in WA allowed pokies) or the TAB rather than at their own club where all their friends are and most leisure time is spent.

    I fail to see why we (and other small bars/community groups/sporting clubs) should suffer for the benefit of Kerry Packer and the TAB. Perhaps you could explain it for me?

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