It’s been five years since the 2010 federal election. Five years since Julia Gillard shook hands with Andrew Wilkie and agreed to legislate poker machine reforms, thereby gaining his support and allowing Labor to form a minority government.
We all know what happened next. Australia’s poker machine industry went into overdrive, condemning everything that was proposed and campaigning long and hard to shut the reforms down. In opposition, the Coalition committed to repealing any legislation that was passed.
The clubs industry led the fight with a $20 million war chest, a host of friendly supporters including a priest and several sports figures, and two separate campaigns targeting Wilkie and Labor.
Wilkie held his nerve throughout; Labor blinked. They caved in, reneged on their agreement and delivered watered-down reforms that satisfied no one. Shortly after that, they were voted out and the Coalition, true to their word (threat?), scrapped the gambling reform legislation, weak though it was. Only one party, the Greens, remained committed to supporting real poker machine reforms, but their voice wasn’t loud enough to be heard.
The battle was over, the opportunity lost. But imagine for a moment what would have happened if Labor had held their nerve.
By now, the reforms package would already have been implemented. The majority of poker machines in Australia would already have been converted to $1 maximum bets, and the rest (the big-spending machines) would require a pre-commitment card to use them.
We’d be used to it by now. It would be normal. Most of us wouldn’t even notice; only 30% of Australian adults ever use poker machines. Only 4% gamble on them regularly. And of those regulars, nine out of ten never bet more than $1 a spin anyway.
The difference is that those who are susceptible, those who are targeted by the addictive tricks the industry uses, would have tools at their disposal to stop them developing an addiction in the first place.
Neil Lawrence’s documentary “Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation” exposed the raft of techniques and strategies employed to keep people gambling at the machines. They highlighted how poker machine gambling was proven to be akin to cocaine addiction in the way it affected the brain.
We could have had tools in place to prevent this; to slow down the pace, allow people to set binding limits, empower people to stay in control. We should have had this. Instead, we got nothing.
In the five years since Gillard and Wilkie shook hands, Australians have lost over $60 billion on poker machines. That alone is a staggering amount of money, but the human cost has been far, far greater. The addiction walks hand in hand with depression, anxiety and fear; poker machines have contributed more than their fair share to family breakdown, financial ruin, domestic violence and suicide. The industry has harmed our society far more than it has helped.
One in six regular poker machine gamblers experiences addiction. That makes every poker machine a revolver with a single bullet in the cylinder. Spin, and press. Press, and spin.
It could have been so different.