The poker machines currently silenced by the COVID-19 pandemic around Australia will have kept $34.2 million in the pockets of Australians every single day.
That figure should floor most people, especially at a time when money is so incredibly tight and governments are pouring billions into supporting Australians and the economy.
In total, Australians lost more than $12.5 billion on poker machines in clubs and pubs alone in 2017-18. For many people, that's food not on their tables, school camps foregone for their children, and other painful sacrifices made due to the addictive nature of poker machines. For many others, that's money that simply doesn't circulate around our economy paying for goods and services, because it's been given up and instead spent on gambling.
Poker machines are undoubtedly a scourge on Australian society and a drain on our economies. We currently have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep those machines switched off and truly assess the damage those machines do to our communities on a daily basis.
I am completely behind a move by the ACT government to extend its policy to support community clubs in surrendering poker machines in exchange for $15,000 per machine that must go towards retaining and supporting staff. What a visionary policy!
Imagine if all the other states and territories made similar moves. In data released this week in NSW it was revealed that on average every single poker machine in a pub raked in $117,000 for its private owners. That's an astounding amount of money being drained out of local communities and lining the pockets of a wealthy few.
The ACT government has seized the unique opportunity presented by this crisis to truly consider what its economy and community could look like as things return to 'normal', or what will undoubtedly be a 'new normal'.
In fact, those same figures showed that poker machine losses in NSW clubs alone in 2019 could have financed the entire NSW government's COVID-19 support package - that package will cost $3.3 billion, whereas $3.97 billion was lost at clubs.
This is the tremendous scale of just the headline financial impact of poker machines in Australia. Those billions of dollars have come from people and families, causing problems from evictions and homelessness through to family violence and mental ill-health, and at times deaths by suicide related to gambling harm.
That is the kind of suffering that gambling harm causes around Australia every day. Our community is suffering other trauma right now. Hundreds of thousands of people are lining up outside Centrelink offices, scenes not witnessed since wartime or the Great Depression. It's clear this pandemic will have far-reaching implications on the lives of Australians for generations to come.
What is also becoming increasingly clear is that when this crisis eases, there are tremendous opportunities before us to reform our economy and our society for the better.
Many industries are suffering huge losses, requiring governments to intervene to prevent the collapse of our entire economy. But gambling is one industry that simply does not deserve any support. The gambling industry routinely takes far, far more than it ever gives or produces. I'm sure most Australians would agree with me when I say the funds available for recovery are too limited to go to propping up gambling interests of any kind.
The rent-seeking gambling industry has shown themselves for the vultures that they are, already looking for manipulative ways to benefit financially from this crisis, exploiting people when they are at their lowest and milking them for their own gain. Governments should direct stimulus to more productive sectors of the economy, not bail out businesses that erode social fabric and burden an already overstretched healthcare system.
Of course, we are concerned for workers at gambling venues, many of whom have lost their jobs in the fallout of the current shutdown. They are entitled to safe, stable and meaningful work. Realistically, that kind of work will be found outside of the gambling industry, because despite what owners of pokies dens claim, research suggests it is far more productive to invest in hospitality than gambling, where we know for every $1 million spent on food and meals 20 jobs are created. Contrast that with a mere three jobs for the same amount lost to gambling.
The truth is, it was a mistake ever allowing poker machines into our communities. Former Victorian premier Joan Kirner regarded their introduction into Victoria as the biggest mistake during her time in office. Even Jeff Kennett, her successor and staunch industry defender, has conceded that poker machines should have been limited to casinos only, as occurs in Western Australia, where gambling harm is the lowest in Australia.
The ACT government has seized the unique opportunity presented by this crisis to truly consider what its economy and community could look like as things return to "normal", or what will undoubtedly be a "new normal". Its move recognises that the purpose of any bailout or stimulus right now is to keep Australians in work, but in the long run its buyback scheme provides an important opportunity to build long-term resilience in its community by reducing gambling harm.
This is the kind of leadership and forward thinking all governments need to take to address this crisis. Decisions taken now will be felt for generations. State governments have an opportunity to strengthen communities and rebuild sustainable, thriving clubs and businesses by reducing their reliance on poker machines to survive. We should not underestimate the opportunity before us, nor feel restricted by the way things were done before.
Australians will remember their leaders not just for how they dealt with COVID-19 at the peak of the crisis, but for the steps they took to rebuild our economy and society afterwards. Policy decisions like that taken by ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr will set the course for a flourishing Australia for all. I certainly hope other states and their premiers will soon follow suit and shut down poker machines and their harmful impacts for good.
- The Reverend Dr Tim Costello is the chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform and a former chief executive of World Vision Australia.