I was as worried as anyone when I wandered down to my local pub to find a poster over the door announcing the government was trying to shut it down.
In their national campaign against proposed changes to poker machine use, Clubs Australia and the Australian Hotel Association (AHA) say “some bloke in Tasmania” (Independent MP Andrew Wilkie) is trying to push through laws that will bankrupt our pubs, destroy our communities and put us all under more government surveillance.
As well as posters and coasters in pubs, Clubs Australia and the AHA have run TV commercials. The commercials explain the threat is not just to those who want a punt, but to our very way of life — it’s un-Australian.
So naturally I went home and investigated the matter, ready to go off to war against those evil bureaucrats in Canberra. But to my surprise (and relief) I couldn't find any trace of a wowser inspired assault on society.
What is actually being proposed is not a 1984-style assault on our civil liberties. What’s proposed is a system of self-regulation for poker machine users, in that you set your own limits to how much you gamble.
It’s limited to poker machines, not other forms of betting. There’s no talk of a government register or surveillance.
Contrary to the hysterical screams of industry executives, no one is trying to stop me putting a tenner on the Bulldogs for the footy on Saturdays (although the way they’ve been playing, someone probably should).
The government isn’t going to kick down your door and confiscate the sweep when you have the neighbours round to watch the race on cup day. “That bloke in Tassie” has nothing against you having a casual punt.
The inspiration behind all this is that we need to find ways to help problem gamblers.
What’s proposed is a targeted system. To play the slots you will need to get a card or sign in (like you would to have a meal at my local club) and set a limit on how much you’re willing to lose before you start playing.
This doesn’t target the regular punter. This is meant to help those who are problem gamblers. People who are struggling with gambling problems can then limit their losses, and not get caught up in the game and extend their stay.
The reality is that gambling addiction is a serious problem. The government estimates the social cost of problem gambling adds up to $4.7 billion a year.
Up to half a million Australians are at risk of becoming, or already are, problem gamblers. One in six people who regularly play the pokies is a problem gambler, and three quarters of problem gamblers have issues with poker machines.
Contrary to the popular myth, problem gambling is something that affects Australian youth. Gamblers aged 18-24 lose more on poker machines than any other group.
Problem gambling is a social issue that affects millions of Australians. The proposed regulation will go some way to helping ease that problem. Why then the hysterics?
Turns out gambling is a rather profitable business. Pokies alone generate about $12 billion a year for their owners (which isn't really surprising as they're programmed so that it’s impossible for you to win). That’s big money.
For those at the winners’ end of the spectrum, that’s 12 billion reasons to stick with the status quo.
Twelve billion dollars is a huge amount of money that goes out of community pockets and into the hands of private businesses, often big corporations.
The gambling lobby tries to present this as something that will hurt local community groups. But the biggest venues for pokies machines, (that generate the biggest annual profit) are the casinos, such as Melbourne Crown casino, which is the largest casino in the southern hemisphere.
Crown boasts a gaming space that covers an area equal to more than two city blocks. In 2009/10, Crown casino ran at a profit of $288.4 million, which doesn't go back into community projects such as may be the case with some sports clubs, but into the hands of shareholders.
Even something as simple as taking measures that can help problem gamblers cuts into this very lucrative business, and those profiting from it don't want that. It’s pure old-fashioned greed.
It’s not often that the government will pick a winner. It's even rarer to see the government go against such a huge and profitable industry. These laws, if they can get up, could have a real impact on reducing problem gambling and its social cost.
However, if we want to see problem gambling reduced even further, we need to see further regulations.
Let’s ban advertising for gambling, in the same way smoking ads are banned. This would have a dramatic effect.
We could apply loss restrictions to the pokies, so people can only lose a certain amount in any sitting. Regulations could be placed on the odds of the machines, to put punters closer to a level footing.
There’s a lot we can do, and a lot that needs to be done. But the one thing that's a sure bet is that if these changes were ever proposed they would be fought tooth and nail by the industry.
Any affront to power, like the one being proposed by “that bloke in Tassie”, will be dependent on our ability as a community to understand it and rally around that cause.
We need to campaign and build alternative bases of power based in our communities that can push back against the pressure of industry groups.
Without that, real social progress draws some pretty long odds.