Pokies policy out of touch with Tasmanians’ wishes

Shaun Thurstans 2019, Gambling, News and Media, Opinion Pieces and Public Commentary

Talking Point: Pokies policy out of touch with Tasmanians’ wishes

WHEN government policy diverges significantly from community views, we are rightly prompted to ask why.

It happened last week with the release of yet another poll showing Tasmanians want fewer or no poker machines.

Every poll for more than 20 years has shown four in five Tasmanians want change. That’s an overwhelming majority to be so repeatedly ignored.

I’ve seen the same desire for change reflected in all the community groups I’ve talked with over the past three years. Tasmanians understand that poker machines are harmful and deliver little benefit to local people.

For some, this comes from personal experience, with Anglicare polling indicating that one in three Tasmanians know someone with a serious problem with poker machines. For others, it arises from an enduring unease about a machine so demonstrably designed to addict and rigged to take your money.

Virtually nowhere else in the world treats poker machines the way Australia does. With only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, Australia has close to 20 per cent of the world’s poker machines. Even more astoundingly, we have 76 per cent of the world’s poker machines outside casinos or similar venues.

Global agreement is that poker machines belong only in casinos, not in hotels and clubs. The view of Tasmanians aligns with this model.

The State Government’s latest Social and Economic Impact Study of Gambling in Tasmania was released last January. These studies are commissioned by the State Government every three years and are intended to inform evidence-based policy making.

The latest government study tells us that things are getting worse in our state.

Poker machine use remains consistent, but the percentage of problem gamblers has increased. One in three Tasmanians who use poker machines are likely to be at-risk or problem gamblers. Young people in Tasmania use machines at a considerably higher rate than the general community. Poker machines are identified as the highest risk gambling activity and are more often used in hotels and clubs, with half of the money they take coming from at-risk and problem gamblers.

The government study has an entire chapter examining the harm caused to others. It tells us at least 20,000 Tasmanians are harmed by the gambling of someone else, and if children were added, it would be thousands more. It says harm minimisation measures are inadequate and stronger measures are needed. The evidence says gambling harm is not just connected to problem and at-risk gambling, but even to those regarded as non-problem gamblers.

Sadly, the clear messages from the study and the Mercury poll are being ignored by the Hodgman Government.

We still set people up to be hurt by these machines. We put poker machines in communities, when evidence tells us being closer to a venue makes it more likely you will gamble. We put poker machines where people socialise, knowing they will cause addiction in at least one in six people that use them. We put them in lower-socioeconomic suburbs, knowing stress in a person’s life is more likely to draw them to these machines.

There is a compelling case for a change in direction.

The Government’s stance on poker machines will not achieve this. It is not aligned with evidence or community views.

I echo this publication’s call for renewed public discussion, now that we are at a distance from any connection to an election result.

An open and transparent approach will require the Government to step away from its bullish persistence in pursuing discredited claims about jobs. These were dispelled by its own study. It will require clarity about poker machine numbers — the Government’s proposal is to reduce the cap on machines by 150, which will set the cap at five more machines than the current number in pubs and clubs. There is no reduction in machines in its proposal.

The divergence from community views is jarringly in conflict with striving for a more positive future for our state. The time has come for the Hodgman Government to reconsider its approach and map a path forward that truly delivers on the will of the Tasmanian people.

Meg Webb is manager of Anglicare’s Social Action and Research Centre.