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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Michael McGowan and Josh Nicholas

The cost of losing the politics of pokies in the gaming machine capital of Australia

A person gambles on a poker machine
The prospect of a backlash from the poker machine lobby is chilling the NSW government’s enthusiasm for reform. Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters

During his final fortnight in New South Wales parliament, the outgoing minister Rob Stokes did his best to beat the drum for poker machine reform in his state.

In two blistering speeches, Stokes attacked the power of the clubs sector, saying it had become “distorted and disfigured” by its reliance on the $3.8bn in yearly pokies revenue and calling for the introduction of a cashless gambling card.

“If a cashless gaming card can help liberate a few people from their enslavement to poker machines, then it is the least we can do for the people of New South Wales,” he said.

Then he upped the ante again this week, calling for an overhaul of NSW donation laws to include the clubs lobby on the list of prohibited donors.

It marked the culmination of a month in which it seemed that NSW – the pokie capital of Australia – might finally be dipping its toe into serious reform. The Coalition premier, Dominic Perrottet, has repeatedly stated his desire to introduce the cashless gaming card in the wake of a Crime Commission report that raised the alarm about criminal money laundering in clubs and hotels.

Rising concerns about problem gambling, too, have forced the government to address the state’s pokies habit. This month a Coalition of religious and social groups started a new campaign to drive reform in the space. Among them is the Wesley Mission, which estimates that NSW residents have lost $135bn in poker machines in the past 30 years.

And yet, despite motivation at the highest level of the government for reform, there is little expectation that much will change. The chief lobby group for clubs in the state – ClubsNSW – has vehemently opposed the policy, and claimed its introduction would lead to job cuts.

It has made similar claims about the use of facial recognition technology to help address problem gambling – a measure it now endorses.

But the prospect of a backlash from the lobby is enough to chill most of the support for reform.

Within the government, Stokes and Perrottet are by no means in the majority. Though some MPs support the push for reform, more see the notion of a cashless gaming card as either paternalistic or as dubiously effective at tackling problem gambling.

On the Labor side, the view is much the same. The opposition leader, Chris Minns, has given his cautious support for an expanded trial of the card – but has bristled at the pressure to take on the clubs lobby, months out from an election the party sees as its best chance to return to government in a decade.

Though much is made of the tens of thousands of dollars donated to both major parties by the clubs lobby, Meredith Burgmann, a former president of the NSW parliament upper house and a powerful figure among the Labor left, said it was more complex.

“It’s not about donations – it’s about the fear of political backlash,” Burgmann said.

“It’s a complex relationship. MPs will have used the local club a hundred times for community events. And people do love their local club because that’s where they go to eat and to socialise. And they support the local sporting clubs. If they decide to run a campaign against you, they can rely on thousands of community members to be quite active about it.”

Indeed, Burgmann recalls a series of similar battles during the Carr-era, including in 2003, when the then Labor government sought to increase taxes on pokie revenue.

The reaction, she remembers, was “swift and brutal”, and you could “see the MPs on both sides losing the will to take them on”.

That same fear still exists, reinforced by numerous stoushes with the lobby, including the Gillard government’s failed attempt to introduce a mandatory pre-commitment proposal in 2012. It was dumped after a ferocious marginal-seat campaign orchestrated by Clubs Australia.

“I don’t think it’s a fight MPs of either side want to have again,” Burgmann said.

Indeed, when the card was first proposed two years ago by then gaming minister Victor Dominello – who was moved out of the portfolio by Perrottet after pressure from ClubsNSW – there was backlash from both sides.

The Nationals party room decided to unanimously oppose the policy, while Labor’s former leader, Michael Daley, also came out against it, comparing it to Mike Baird’s disastrous attempt to ban greyhound racing.

For Labor, the threat of backlash is perhaps more visceral. Analysis of the areas in which poker machine revenue is concentrated show the vast majority are where its MPs hold seats.

Indeed, of the Top 10 local government areas for share of poker machines, only two – Penrith and Lake Macquarie – are not in a majority Labor-held seat.

One Labor MP in a western Sydney seat told the Guardian the view within the party was it “was not a fight worth having”.

“There’s absolutely a recognition we need to do something about problem gambling,” the MP said. “But I don’t think, first, that anyone is convinced this is it, and second, that we can do much about it from opposition.”

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