I’ve been thinking about writing this blog post for some time now. Much as I try to remain positive, focusing on what can still be done to make a difference, it’s increasingly clear that things have gone horribly wrong. What seemed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue real, effective reform for the poker machine industry has devolved into bickering, bullying and capitulation.
Politics has failed us.
There are some things that should enjoy the benefit of broad support; measures to prevent or reduce harm are one of those things. It’s well known that the majority of the Australian population have expressed their desire for poker machine reform; poll after poll, survey after survey, the results speak for themselves. The idea of making real changes to poker machines themselves, rather than simply faffing around the edges, had popular support across all demographics, regardless of age, gender or political persuasion.
Yet what have we ended up with? Compromised legislation, reluctantly supported by the MP who championed it, which will do little to help anyone, even if it makes it through parliament… and that looks increasingly unlikely.
Alternative proposals for reduced bet limits and jackpots which could also make a difference, but which are opposed by both major parties.
An industry that, having defeated the reforms that would actually help people, is now hell-bent on re-writing history and painting itself as the good guy.
And big-name players in the field of poker machine reform, politically aligned and motivated, now reduced to attacking anyone who doesn’t agree with their own hard-line position.
Clubs Australia are no doubt sitting back and giggling quietly to themselves as the carnage unfolds.
How have we come to this?
The failure runs deep, through every level of politics.
Locally, we have councils who are hamstrung by the policies and procedures put in place by our state governments. Many still see poker machines as an acceptable cash cow, and those that oppose the expansion of the industry within their boundaries are regularly let down by a system that is geared towards the industry rather than the community.
In Victoria, almost every venue application for poker machines is opposed by local councils, yet they keep getting approved. In NSW, the laws were changed to allow clubs to transfer poker machines between venues almost at will, and many councils still see nothing wrong with the mechanics of the industry.
At the state level, we have governments who earn a significant percentage of their revenue from poker machine taxes. They are hopelessly compromised by their reliance upon the gambling dollar; every party promises tough changes while in opposition, only to turn away once the opportunity arises. The NSW Coalition took it one step further by signing an agreement with ClubsNSW before the last state election, promising to look after their poker machine industry.
Yet it is at the federal level that the failure runs deepest. Dragged kicking and screaming into the poker machine debate by a borderline election result and the need to secure an Independent’s vote, Labor promised the world, only to postpone any real action until they felt able to back away from their commitment. The Coalition were no better, stridently opposing proposed reforms and siding with the clubs industry in their campaign.
And as the promise of reform fell apart, its supporters began to play dirty. Suddenly if you weren’t backing the right reforms or flat-out rejecting certain proposals or pieces of legislation then you were the enemy. Supposed advocates of reform began using the poker machine industry’s smearing, bullying tactics on friend and foe alike.
It’s a mess.
The only winners in this debacle are those who make up the industry; the clubs, pubs and casinos who own and operate poker machines. To them, we are just a source of revenue, and it’s that revenue that they have been desperate to protect. Lives mean nothing when your only goal is securing your bottom line. I’ve said this before, but now more than ever it’s clear that Australia’s poker machine industry is a protected species with a dubious claim to legitimacy. The reality is that they have blood on their hands.
I have given up hope of a political solution to the problem of Australia’s poker machine industry. The lure of the dollar is too strong, the vested interests too ruthless, the political will too weak. There is perhaps a handful of politicians in this country who would support true, meaningful poker machine reform regardless of the political consequences; a handful is not enough.
But I have not given up hope of change. So long as there are still people out there trying to make a difference, people who are still focused on the harm poker machines cause rather than the political benefits of taking a particular point of view, then there is hope.
So long as programs like (Re) Making Meaning and the NEPCP’s gambling-free Social Outings Guide continue to start up and work within the community, there is hope.
So long as truly independent researchers and academics are willing to spend their own time and money gathering more data, more evidence of the damage caused by pokies under the watchful eye of the industry and our governments, there is hope.
This is the last time I will write about the politics of poker machine reform here at Cyenne. Oh, I still have an interest in politics, and I will continue to write about it from time to time on my other blog, In Other Words. But the place for politics in this debate is over.
Politics has failed us.
It’s time to try something else.
It’s been 3 & 1/2 years since I wrote this. Time to regroup, time to load up again. Much as I still believe that politics failed in the area of gambling reform, I now believe that the political process will play a part in the eventual solution.
It’s not over yet.