States addicted to pokie profits

Opinion Article

2010 September, 18

Governments use gambling taxes to suck blood money from their poorest citizens.


Former Queensland premier Wayne Goss’s mea culpa at the Brisbane Writers Festival in 2008 showed  an all too rare honesty from someone who contributed to Australia’s champion status in the prevalence  of poker machines. There are more of these blood-sucking machines per capita in the lucky country than in any other nation.  


The reason Goss gave for his regret was obvious: “The problem with poker machines in my view is  that the people who mainly play them are the people who can least afford to do so. I wish I hadn’t done  it.”  


What a tragedy. The poor are a goldmine, observed African-American economist Thomas Sowell. Though the poor may have few dollars to their name, if you get them to part with half of it, there are so  many of them you will make a mint.  


The political history of the introduction of poker machines in Australia is shameful. Nothing more plainly involves the state corrupting its own citizens than the officially sanctioned promotion and growth of gambling, particularly poker machines.  


The culpability of Labor governments in this history is extraordinary to reflect on. How can a party that  sees itself as actively seeking a better society, whose mission involves tackling poverty and disadvantage, be responsible for such a scourge? Can there be anything more contrary to the Labor notion of social justice than the state-sanctioned spread of poker machines?  


Before the shame of Australia’s addiction to poker machines came to light in the Productivity Commission’s report to former federal treasurer Peter Costello in 1999, those who had allowed the  scourge to spread could still convince themselves that those who opposed poker machines were just  wowsers. That opposition to poker machines was put down to conservative wowsers such as former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen and former West Australian premier Charles Court is apparent in Goss’s explanation for his government’s actions: “Introducing poker machines to give clubs a fair go  was Labor Party policy for a long time and we implemented it.”


It was a great betrayal of the lowest classes, who always suffer from state-sanctioned addictions. Who would have preferred wowser leadership to the kind of cosmopolitan leadership that resulted in such a cane toad of a social problem as poker machines being let loose in society? The people of WA should count their blessings for their state government’s resistance to poker machines.  


Every time I drive through the country towns of north Queensland I see who is sitting on the park benches and hanging around outside the TAB, the ATMs and the poker machine venues. I know who is  who. Relatives, friends, countrymen.  


You can tell who is waiting for someone who is inside gambling away their welfare payment. The children are waiting for their mother to finish up. They can wait there all day. You know from the day  of the week what payment has hit whose account.  


Those who manage a windfall or to keep some of their money will get to the supermarket at the end of the day and buy groceries before heading back out to their homes. Those who have blown their money are in that familiar state of panic and trying to get a “loan” from someone else so they can take some food home.  


As with all of the addictions that were brought to Australia, gambling has hit Aborigines and Torres  Strait Islanders most severely.  


The resistance to reform by the gambling lobby and the state governments that are now hopelessly addicted to gambling revenues is nearly implacable, of course. A phalanx of lobbyists, many of them former politicians and senior public servants, represent as formidable a defence of the gambling industry as those employed by Big Tobacco.  


The truism that state governments are addicted to gambling revenues is no different from Aboriginal  councils that operated alcohol outlets in Aboriginal communities. The political leaders of these communities would not take action to tackle the problems of alcohol abuse among their people because  their councils relied on the revenue generated by their canteens. Despite the social chaos, the violence, the ill-health and the deaths connected with widespread alcohol abuse, the councils would not take  action. There was an institutional addiction to the revenue. The greater the alcohol problem, the greater  the revenue.  


And when alcohol restrictions were proposed, the immediate objection was: “But we rely on this revenue to pay for the social services that we provide to the community. If you take away our income,  these services will have to be cut.”  


But the services were all aimed at trying to respond to the social problems caused by the abuse of  alcohol.  


This inane situation on Queensland’s Aboriginal communities finally came to an end when former premier Peter Beattie introduced his most important social policy achievement, alcohol management  plans. Premier Anna Bligh then moved to break the connection entirely between councils and alcohol revenues by removing the ability of shire councils to own liquor outlets. The twisted nexus between the community leaders and the grog problem finally was broken.  


All of the dodging, denial and excuse making came to an end only when the nexus was broken.  


Organisations that have become dependent on blood revenues are like addicts. They engage in denial  and pretence. They minimise the problems. They avoid doing anything decisive about them. Their ultimate aim is to maintain their access to the revenue.  


State governments are like the Aboriginal councils were. They are addicted to blood revenues and they  will forever dodge and weave until someone breaks the nexus that has corrupted them, a nexus that  sees them leave families to live in misery each and every week.  


Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie has made poker machines an explicit policy concern for the  new parliament. Godspeed to senator Nick Xenophon, who now has an opportunity to confront this  scourge.


Those Labor and conservative political leaders who share Goss’s regret for introducing poker machinesor for allowing them to spread sogreedily across the countryside, or for failing to do anything effectiveto tackle them when they held political office, should see it as their moral obligation to support bipartisan action on poker machines.

States addicted to pokie profits