The Road To Hell Is Not Paved With Poker Machines

Is there any form of entertainment more reviled than the pokies? Perhaps cockfighting, or rabbit hunting. Or Russian roulette. But then again, nursing homes aren’t sending the elderly in groups to watch blood sports.

Obviously, when problem gambling manifests itself as a serious mental illness, there should be, and is, professional help available. But levels of problem gambling are actually quite low. According to the most recent study in Victoria, less than 2per cent of pokies players are problem gamblers, and that’s with a pretty fuzzy and expansive definition of what constitutes a “problem”.

Ninety-eight per cent of people who play the slots suffer no negative consequences. Why then is there such extraordinary venom directed at the industry? The average Victorian spends just $50 on poker machines a month – the cost of dinner and a movie.

So there’s something a bit distasteful about the passion with which the great and good declare their anti-pokies views.

Not even cigarettes cop as much flak as the pokies. Anti-tobacco activists appear to believe smoking is the equivalent of being stabbed in the face by a cigarette company – every cigarette is doing you damage – but few community leaders go so far as proposing the complete elimination of smoking, as they do with the pokies.

Perhaps it’s like that old anecdote about the academics who have never met anyone who voted for John Howard – pretty much everybody has tried a cigarette, and most people have friends who regularly smoke, but who could be so tasteless as to enjoy gambling with a machine? Certainly not anyone I know.

Still, it makes sense that poker machines would cop the brunt of anti-gambling sentiment. The pokies have none of the romance of other types of gaming. Playing high-stakes poker around a table while wearing a tuxedo could be very romantic. One-cent pokies? Very rarely romantic. In his 22 adventures so far, James Bond has never once seduced a leggy European femme fatale while grasping a cup full of change and hoping three strawberries will appear in a row, as delightful as that would be to watch.

Sure, it doesn’t always look like pokies players are having a whole lot of fun. But while it’s easy to disdain those who spend Saturday night pulling a lever in a suburban pub – their vacant look, their robotically repetitive movements, their apparent joylessness – have you ever looked at somebody else while they watched a movie?

I don’t want to sound all “neo-liberal” here – respecting individual choice and economic liberty is so 2007 – but for the most part, people do things because they want to.

As a consequence, saying that Victorians “lost” $2.4billion at the pokies last financial year makes about as much sense as saying Victorians lost $2.4billion at the cinemas. Perhaps the critics of poker machines could grant that people who go out of their way to play the pokies derive at least some small benefit from doing so? As much as it enjoys the revenue from taxes on poker machines, the State Government doesn’t force anybody to play.

Indeed, a very weird concern of the anti-pokies movement is that state governments are addicted to the revenue they receive from heavily taxing poker machines. Admittedly, in the Victorian budget last week, the Government expects to receive slightly over $1.6billion from its assorted gaming taxes – most of which comes from the pokies. But this is a tiny 4per cent of total state revenue.

Anyway, if the Government needs “to wean itself off gambling revenue”, as the head of the Interchurch Gaming Taskforce said last week, then the quickest way would be to dramatically reduce taxes on gambling. This may not, however, be the solution anti-pokies activists are looking for.

Traditionally, governments have banned the lower classes from card games and betting. And those same cash-hungry governments kindly offered the middle classes official revenue-raising lotteries. The upper classes have had free rein to indulge in whatever stupid games of chance they can devise. In fact, in the history of Europe, a surprising number of territorial acquisitions have been made not through war but as a result of bets between over-confident monarchs.

After centuries of paternalism, anti-gambling activists perhaps need a change of attitude. Even if you don’t enjoy the pokies, others do.