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We fact-checked Samantha Ratnam's claim that Victorians have lost $66 billion at the pokies. Here's what we found.

The claim

As the Victorian state election looms, the leader of the Victorian Greens, Samantha Ratnam, has taken to Twitter to announce a plan to reform gambling laws in the state.

"Today the Greens are announcing their plan for a pokies-free Victoria," she wrote.

"Since they were introduced in the state 30 years ago, Victorians have lost $66b at the pokies, and we're currently on track for record losses this year." 

Does Ms Ratnam know her gambling history? Have Victorians lost $66 billion on poker machines?

RMIT ABC Fact Check investigates.

The verdict

Ms Ratnam's claim is understated.

Data published by the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission (VGCCC) shows that on a nominal basis, Victorians have lost $65.4 billion on poker machines located in clubs and hotels since their introduction in 1992.

Once adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2022 dollars, this figure is $89.7 billion.

In addition, the VGCCC data does not include losses derived from the more than 2,600 poker machines located in Melbourne’s Crown Casino, about a 10th of the state’s total.

It's worth noting that losses on poker machines have not risen uniformly over the 30 years.

The impact of COVID-19 lockdowns saw large reductions in losses on poker machines in recent years.

While there has been a sharp bounce back in recent months, data adjusted for inflation and household income shows a long-term decline in losses from the early 2000s until the onset of the pandemic.

The context of the claim

In her tweet, Ms Ratnam said Victoria was "on track for record losses this year".

In a second tweet, she outlined a series of policies the Greens would seek to implement to limit losses, including betting limits, higher taxes, a poker machine buy-back scheme and a ban on political donations from the gambling industry.

The Victorian Pre-Election Budget Update published in November reported "elevated electronic gaming machine (EGM) activity" and forecast an increase in tax revenue derived from poker machines this financial year.

This activity follows a significant decline in losses in recent years while the state imposed strict lockdowns to manage the spread of COVID-19.

Associate professor in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine and head of the Gambling and Social Determinants unit at Monash University Charles Livingstone told Fact Check that following the removal of restrictions, monthly data in the first three months of 2022-23 appeared to show an uptick in poker-machine losses.

"It's come back with a vengeance from what we have seen from the month-to-month data that has so far been released," he said.

However, before the pandemic, on various measurements, poker machine losses were significantly below the levels of the early 2000s.

Poker machines in Victoria

Electronic gambling machines, or "pokies" as they are colloquially referred to, began appearing in Victorian hotels and clubs in July 1992 after the Kirner government legislated in 1991.

Dr Livingstone told Fact Check the "most authoritative source for recent data" on poker machine losses in Victoria was published by the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission.

In its dataset, the VGCCC refers variously to poker machine "expenditure" and "player loss".

VGCCC CEO Annette Kimmitt told Fact Check in an email these two terms were used interchangeably within the dataset and were defined as "the amount of money placed into gaming machines less the amount of money withdrawn from gaming machines within the venue".

Data accounting for full financial years is available from 1992-93 to 2021-22.

In addition, data for the months of July, August and September 2022 were also available at the time of Ms Ratnam's claim on November 2.

Associate professor and executive director of the South Australian Centre for Economic Studies at the University of Adelaide Michael O'Neil told Fact Check national statistics on poker-machine losses were also available. This data, which is broken down by state, is published on a rotating basis by each state and territory.

The national statistics were most recently published by the Queensland Treasury in April 2021, covering the period until 2018-19.

In an email, a spokeswoman for Ms Ratnam told Fact Check her claim was based on analysis conducted by the Alliance for Gambling Reform using VGCCC data.

Adjusting for inflation

Ms Kimmitt told Fact Check the VGCCC data was published only on a nominal basis.

Dr Livingstone said these figures could also be adjusted to account for inflation, reflecting the "real" value of gambling losses over time.

The national figures, available only until 2018-19, are published on both a nominal and real basis. Fact Check has adjusted the VGCCC data using the same methodology as the national figures.

Other analyses contained in the national publication include losses as a proportion of household disposable income and losses per capita.

What the numbers show

On a nominal basis, the data shows that between July 1992 and September 2022 Victorians lost a total of $65.4 billion on poker machines located in clubs and hotels across Victoria — just short of Ms Ratnam's claim of $66 billion.

As the chart below illustrates, on a nominal basis player losses climbed steadily following the introduction of poker machines in July 1992 before remaining relatively stable across the next two decades.

Significant declines in player losses were recorded in the financial years ending June 2020, 2021 and 2022 when Victoria imposed a series of COVID-related lockdowns. 

Once adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2022 dollars, the data shows player losses over the same period totalled $89.7 billion.

The inflation-adjusted figures also illustrate a longer-term decline in poker-machine losses beginning in 2002-03.

As the chart below shows, this trend can also be observed in the national statistics, which calculate Victorian player losses as a proportion of household disposable income until 2018-19. 

Melbourne’s Crown Casino

The VGCCC data includes losses derived from poker machines located in clubs and hotels across the state, however, it excludes losses recorded at the more than 2,600 poker machines located in Melbourne's Crown Casino which account for approximately 10 per cent of the state total. 

Dr Livingstone told Fact Check this meant the VGCCC’s data set significantly underestimated the total value of losses to poker machines across the state.

Since 2016-17, Crown Casino has isolated the "operating revenue" of Victorian "main floor machines" in its annual reports. The most recent report available at the time of the claim covered the 2020-21 financial year. 

In addition to the losses recorded at clubs and hotels, Crown Casino's poker machines recorded a further $1.9 billion in revenue between 2016-17 and 2020-21. 

Therefore, even on a nominal basis, poker-machine losses in Victoria have clearly exceeded Ms Ratnam's claim of losses totalling $66 billion over the past 30 years.

Once adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2022 dollars, the Crown figure is $2 billion.

What the experts say

Dr Livingstone told Fact Check gambling revenue represented a significant tax revenue base in the state.

"Total gambling revenue was over 11 per cent of the state tax revenue in Victoria during the peak of pokie machines which has now dropped to about 8 per cent – and most of that comes from pokie machines," he said.

"What we are looking at is a system where the state government is getting a reasonably significant chunk of its state revenue from this source."

Mr O'Neil told Fact Check recent inquiries into casinos had also highlighted the significant social harm associated with poker machines. 

"The real impact/story of excessive gambling [and] poor regulation is the harm that it causes and criminality often associated with gambling as we have seen with the various casino inquiries," he said in an email.

Principal researcher: Sonam Thomas


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