Wow! Just like that, the next Tasmanian election became important. The Tasmanian Liberal Party have been nowhere near as incompetent, corrupt or divisive as their federal counterparts. Add to that some comparatively progressive positions on refugees and Marriage Equality and they are closer to their Labor opposition than the federal government. Well they were close. But then Labor leader, Rebecca White, announced her party would phase out poker machines over the next five years and the Tasmanian people have been presented with a clear choice. With politicians in other states no doubt watching on with interest, the upcoming battle over poker machine reform will be important.
As in other states of Australia, the harm done to the Tasmanian community by poker machines is significant and widespread. The 2017 Tasmanian Parliamentary committee recognised this with its recommendation that the industry should be significantly reformed and the number of machines reduced. And the Hodgman government did next to nothing.
The parliamentary committee reported that nearly 200 million dollars are spent on poker machines in Tasmania annually. According to a report commissioned by Anglicare, around a third of this comes from problem gamblers. But these problem gamblers are not the only people who suffer from poker machines. The economic hardship and struggles with addiction contribute to a range of other societal harms such as family breakdown, crime, suicide, intergenerational poverty and neglect.
The Anglicare report further noted that the majority of money lost to poker machines exits the state economy through lease fees and private shareholders. If even a fraction of this money was diverted from the machines and retained in Tasmania, it would be worth tens of millions of dollars to the Tasmanian economy and create hundreds of jobs.
Sounds like a no-brainer. What’s the catch?
While poker machines are unambiguously poison to Tasmanian society, the proposal to phase them out is still a high-risk strategy for the Tasmanian Labor Party, and one that its counterparts in other states will watch carefully. Let’s not forget, there is a lot of money and vested interest in the gambling industry. Predictably, it took no time at all for this policy to draw heat from a number of high profile sources in government and the industry. Greg Farrell’s hyperbolic statement on behalf of the Federal Group threatened legal action and the entire company withdrawing its operations from Tasmania.
Just as the speed and the source of these attacks were no surprise, neither were the arguments made against the policy. Broadly speaking, there are three main arguments against Labor’s pokies policy, which will be employed in any state that attempts to reduce the pervasive influence of poker machines. None of them are entirely frivolous, so they deserve consideration. However none provide sufficient justification to counter Labor’s policy either.
“It will cost jobs,”
The first argument that opponents of the policy rely on is the impact on people’s jobs. This is usually the first argument against any policy, regularly spoken in grim voices by people whose jobs are never really in danger. Despite my distaste for lattes and chardonnay, I’m still about as middle class as you can get, so I have to own that it won’t be my job that is affected. And I really do empathise with those who feel their job is threatened, but let’s consider this argument dispassionately, without jumping at shadows. I would take these claims more seriously if many of the people citing them hadn’t used the same arguments to back slashing penalty rates six months ago, arguing this would promote economic growth and more employment. It hasn’t.
Let’s be honest, exaggerating the threat to jobs is a deliberate propaganda strategy and an over-used one at that. As I noted earlier, the Anglicare study suggested that diverting the millions of dollars spent on poker machines into the Tasmanian economy would actually have the net effect of creating jobs!
But that doesn’t make it any better for the hospitality worker whose job is on the line. I get that. I don’t necessarily accept that venues cannot be profitable without poker machines and that job losses will be anything like what opponents of the policy are claiming, but I’m not going to argue that this policy is cost-free.
However the phasing out of an obsolete or harmful industry never is. I’m sure it cost jobs in the asbestos industry when it was discovered that the fibres were deadly, but it would have cost lives not to do anything about it. In a similar way, the longer poker machines are allowed to reap their harvest of money and misery, the more lives are ruined by them. Similarly, tobacco companies could argue that reducing the restrictions on their advertising and sales would increase production and create more jobs, but they don’t because they understand the simple policy calculus that destroying people’s lives is not justified by the jobs it creates.
Something else to remember is that these changes will not come into place overnight. Ms White has given a reasonable timeframe for people who know their work is at risk to upskill, retrain and look for more secure employment. I sympathise with those who are unable to do so, but not nearly as much as I sympathise with people, especially children, whose lives are being torn apart by gambling addiction in their families. If I have to choose who to protect it’s not a hard choice.
“I don’t need a nanny-state telling me what to do,”
Another argument people will make is about civil liberties and ‘nanny-state’ policies. Sure, the machines are rigged to make money and they have been deliberately designed and refined to prey upon those with addictions, but isn’t it still a person’s right to use them if they so wish? No doubt, we will hear that poker machines aren’t the problem, addicts are the problem and why should those able to gamble responsibly (if you don’t find that an oxymoron) suffer? This is a seductive line of reasoning, as it appeals to our natural sense of fairness and forgets that we live in a fundamentally unfair world. One in which we are ‘punished’ for the behaviours and inadequacies of others on a regular basis. I could use the same argument against speed limits, drug laws, seat belts or gun control. In fact, the next time you hear someone arguing against banning these harmful machines, try replacing the word ‘pokies’ with the word ‘guns’ and see how much they sound like the NRA in America. If you understand why even responsible gun owners can have some of their rights restricted, then you should understand how the same is true for ‘responsible gamblers.’
To anyone who thinks government should not be in the business of restricting our rights, I disagree. Isn’t that exactly their function? That is what making a law does. It determines in what circumstances you can take the actions you want to and often those circumstances are quite restricted. Obviously we don’t want the government trampling on our freedoms unnecessarily. That is why it is important you don’t elect corrupt or incompetent representatives to make decisions about your freedom. But this is a good decision.
“They will just find different ways to gamble,”
It is also argued that the phasing out of poker machines will not have the intended effect, as it will just push gamblers online or to casinos. There is surely a kernel of truth here for some gamblers, but it is sophistry and outright deceit to claim that the current locations of poker machines and their deliberate concentration in particular suburbs does not contribute to the problem. And if Mr Farrell really thought this would drive a significant number of gamblers to his casinos, he wouldn’t be throwing such a tantrum. A recognised concern of the Anglicare study was the phenomena of impulse gambling due to the proximity of poker machines near to where people live. When Tasmanians, especially those prone to addiction- can’t go to their local pub for a counter meal or a drink with a friend without having to resist the pull of the machines, then they are obviously more vulnerable to the associated harms. If a reformed junkie couldn’t go out with their friends without being enticed with a loaded syringe, how hard would it be for them to stay clean? For this reason, unravelling the almost ubiquitous status of these machines is a very important step in combatting the problem.
And don’t forget this IS a problem we are facing. A big one too. The gambling lobby will fight hard and fight dirty, while the Liberal government remain willing accomplices, so don’t forget how much of a disaster poker machines are. Tackling the problem may cost some jobs; it may slightly reduce your options in how people gamble; and it won’t stop all problem gambling. But it WILL reduce the damage. It shouldn’t be a hard decision.