In a recent column for the Guardian, Van Badham asked whether the ‘public shaming of Australian gamblers has more to do with bourgeois loathing of working-class habits than any genuine moral crusade for public good.’ There is something galling about defending gambling on the basis of its working class cultural credentials, given the industry thrives on stripping money from the disadvantaged.
The reality is that gambling is a potentially dangerous activity with huge social costs. The minimal social benefits it generates are often unjustifiably used to defend its existence.
Pokies are the key problem. They are the riskiest form of gambling and involve the most losses. Other types feature breaks in play and social activities where people can keep an eye out for someone going too far. Pokies are specifically designed to be addictive. The bells and whistles hide the fact that the minute you press the button, the game of chance is over: the rest is noise. Researchers at Southern Illinois University have tracked how pokies actually retrain your brain to create the feeling of a win from a loss. That is, an addiction to pokies can mean that the reward-seeking part of the brain overrides rational decision making. The machine is designed to draw you in and empty your pockets. Alone. Repeatedly.
There is a stigma associated with problem gambling that unhappily persists, despite the reality of addiction by design. The industry is built on this revenue. The Productivity Commission has found that between 22 percent and 60 percent of spending on pokies comes from problem gamblers. The figures rise to 42 to 75 percent when moderate risk and problem gamblers are grouped together. This affects more than just the individual: the Productivity Commission estimates that for every problem gambler, an average of seven people are affected.
The harm is also felt by the most vulnerable. Monash researchers have found that the highest mean losses on pokies occur in areas that are most socio-economically disadvantaged.
So there is no pride in defending an industry that profits from working class misery.
Of course, the industry line is that gambling subsidises community activities. To me, endorsing this is like chickens applauding Colonel Sanders for raising the profile of poultry.
What happened to a proper system of taxation to fund community activities or sporting facilities? Why do we make poor people pay for community clubs through addiction? Even though a club may be non-profit, it can still be very profitable. But its expenditure is not decided by the community. And, given community contributions are not mandatory in Victoria, the amount allocated often falls short of what’s promised when the venue is first established.
Moreover, in Western Australia, which has conveniently fallen of Badham’s map, sports and community clubs survive just fine, despite the fact that pokies are not permitted in clubs or hotels.
Advocates for prohibition of the industry make for a convenient straw man, because they are pretty few and far between. Plenty of people gamble socially and don’t lose their life savings. But it is perfectly reasonable that the public is concerned about a social activity that sees vulnerable people relieved of their money via a stigmatised addiction, with state governments turning a blind eye as their coffers fill.
And there’s the rub: governments have very little interest in regulating the industry properly, as doing so will affect their bottom line. My legal firm recently acted for the community of Castlemaine, who stopped an unwanted pokies venue from being built in their town. Apart from the revenue that would flow to the State Government, the operator also proposed to refurbish the proposed venue, which was public property, saving the government in millions that would instead come from local problem gamblers. Effectively, progressive taxation was going to be replaced by a community club recouping its costs from the poor and addicted.
More importantly, the community didn’t want this club.
In fact, it is commonplace for polls to show that between two thirds to three quarters of any given community do not want a proposed pokies venue. Yet clubs and hotels continue to get approvals. Something is very wrong with the regulation of this industry when this is repeatedly happening.
Dismissing such criticism as snobbery is lazy and politically irresponsible. It condones governments and the gambling industry profiting off the poor and outsourcing taxation for community services. The attitude’s almost like a full circle of false consciousness: embracing an industry that feeds off the poor, in reaction to perceived middle class tut-tutting.
The last thing we need in this debate is more confusing rhetoric. There’s plenty of publicly available facts – and there’s no excuse for ignoring them.