Our Say: Fight to curb pokies’ power worth a gamble

Surely it is not too much to expect that our society, and more significantly our politicians, have a serious rethink about the social and financial impacts of gambling.

The latest figures on our community’s splurge on poker machines would have been a serious shock to many.

In Dubbo $929,593 is gambled and re-gambled on poker machines every day. That is $339.3 million a year.

Here’s another number: 1,500,000,000. That’s the amount in Australian dollars that will be raised by the NSW government this year through taxes on poker machines in pubs and clubs.

The figure represents about 5 per cent of the state's total taxation revenue. It is more than enough to cover a year's spending on the entirety of the state's civil and criminal justice system, and more than enough to cover recurrent spending on public housing.

But the poker machine industry's power in NSW is not attributable solely to the support it provides NSW Treasury.

More powerful still than that $1.5 billion is the moral suasion generated by the industry's ability to disburse the money it accrues from the machines.

NSW clubs invariably hand a share of the money they make from poker machines to hospitals, to sporting organisations, to various community groups and facilities.

The disbursement of this money helps forge links between clubs and their constituent communities. But it also creates, for the clubs, an opportunity for moral blackmail, should governments ever threaten to turn off their poker machine taps.

When the Gillard Labor government attempted to minimise the harm caused by poker machines, the ferocity of the clubs' backlash made full use of that opportunity.

Labor’s proposed reforms – a mandatory scheme whereby players could limit their losses – would cost jobs, weaken local hospitals, and threaten junior and senior sports across the state, clubs declared.

The Gillard government lost that fight in 2011, though it also might be said its heart was never really in it. No government since has been prepared to take on the clubs on the issue of poker machines.

Indeed, when the NSW Liberal-National Coalition swept to power in 2011, it handed the clubs a $300-million tax break.

But political cowardice cannot bury social need. And the on-going drain of money into poker machines continues to be an indictment on the social organisation of the state.