SYDNEY – It’s just after morning opening at Sydney’s Randwick Labor Club and already a few regulars are at the slot machines, or “pokies” as they are known locally, for a quiet flutter.
Electronic poker machines are the most popular form of betting in Australia, but concerns about problem gamblers have prompted the government to introduce reforms to help keep their spending under control.
“The big picture is we’re becoming a nanny state,” said Peter Bell, 70, a retiree who likes playing the machines, just like he enjoys betting on horse races. “I spend a lot more money at the racetrack than I ever do at a poker machine,” he joked.
There are around 200,000 electronic gaming machines in Australia, with about 600,000 people playing them at least weekly, according to a 2010 Productivity Commission report. But concerned that 15 percent of these players are problem gamblers whose money accounts for 40 percent of spending, the government has moved to encourage all players to “precommit” to a financial limit before they start so they don’t overspend.
Under legislation passed in late 2012, although the system will remain voluntary, poker machine manufacturers must put the new precommitment technology on all new machines by the end of 2014. Warnings will also flash up on players’ screens with messages questioning them along the lines of, “How long have you been playing?” and “Have you spent beyond your limits?”
Antigambling campaigners say the system does not go far enough, since played at high intensity, it is easy to lose AU$1,500 ($1,550) or more an hour on a poker machine.
“We think it’s next to useless,” said Erin McMallum, whose Getup! organization has been pushing for maximum bets to be dropped to AU$1, a move that would limit losses to about AU$120 an hour. “People don’t voluntarily restrict themselves. Half the time they don’t even realize they have a problem.”
McMallum said problem gambling is widespread in Australia, with many stories of people losing their homes, their relationships and even family members to suicide.
“Australia does have quite a unique problem in relation to problem gambling addiction, especially to poker machines,” she said. “The machines here are prolific, they are exceptionally high loss, and you can find them almost anywhere — every club, pub, bar, casino. They are hard to avoid if you do happen to have an addiction.”
The clubs industry, which derives revenue from the pokies, is also nonplussed by voluntary precommitment, with the executive director of Clubs Australia, Anthony Ball, saying players would be reluctant to use it. “Let’s remember, people are playing a poker machine for the same reason they might bet on a horse or play the lotteries — they want to win. It’s a feeling of freedom, it’s their recreation,” he said. “To get a card, to register brings a whole different feel to it.”
Australians love a gamble. “The punt is ingrained in Australian culture,” Ball explained.
Club membership is around 11.6 million people out of Australia’s population of 23 million, and the industry says it employs 96,000 people, making an economic contribution of some AU$7.2 billion each year.
What concerns Ball is that the government has for the first time ever “involved itself in the regulation of poker machines.”
Ball said the technology would not be a “silver bullet,” and the government’s plan for precommitment to become mandatory in the Canberra region as part of a trial will fail dismally.
“We think that mandatory precommitment will not help people — you don’t give a problem gambler a gambling card, that doesn’t work. It’s like giving an alcoholic drinking tickets. It’s a crazy thing to do,” he said.