Pokie apologists are out of new arguments

After nearly a year of submissions and hearings from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Future Gaming Markets, and the research proving the social harm caused by the proliferation of poker machines, the gambling industry has just three arguments left to justify their position that pokies should stay in Tasmanian pubs.

The first is that pokies create employment. While it is true that when $200 million is spent, some jobs will be created, more would be created if this money was spent elsewhere. Poker machine losses, which are concentrated in low-income households, do not come from savings. Rather, they come from monies that would otherwise be spent with other Tasmanian businesses.

Because pokies are essentially self-service, the 2008 Social and Economic Impact Study found that only about three people are employed for every million dollars lost on them in a hotel. This compared with about 20 people employed if the same money was spent on food. No wonder employment in Tasmanian hotels fell by 14 per cent in the three years after poker machines came in. All small businesses are affected but none more so than those in the hospitality and tourism sector, especially the 96 per cent of clubs and 74 per cent of hotels that are already pokies free. The study found that for every dollar lost on a poker machine, 65 cents is lost to these businesses.  

The second argument is that pokies create $55 million in government revenue. While this is also true, what the pokie lobbyists ignore is that the Parliamentary Committee is not considering whether every poker machine should be removed from Tasmania. Nor is the Coalition promoting policy reform arguing this. 

Victoria raises more than $1.1 billion on pokie losses of about $2.6 billion, a tax return of about 42 per cent. Tasmania’s tax take is considerably less than 30 per cent. If pokies were to be taxed at the Victorian level after pubs become pokies-free, government revenue would be little affected. Moreover, spending on keno, racing and lotteries would increase. When the savings from reduced pressure on the health system, prisons and emergency services, are factored in, the state budget would be a significant net beneficiary of the removal of pub poker machines. Even the Community Support Levy need not be impacted.

The final argument is that people have a “right” to play the pokies. To the extent that this argument has merit, it is countered by the fact that the large majority of Tasmanians will still live within an easy drive of a poker machine should the current licence be allowed to expire. Every poll ever done has shown that over 80 per cent of Tasmanians would welcome their community becoming pokie-free.

Tasmanian MPs have put the profits of the gambling industry before the public good for about 30 years, and without strong public pressure it seems likely that this will continue. Treasurer Peter Gutwein has said that pokies will be staying in hotels. The only question that the Parliamentary Committee has to consider, as far as the outspoken Treasurer is concerned, is the future structure of the gaming market. There has so far been no sign that Premier Will Hodgman or other Liberal MPs will challenge him on this.

The question for Labor Leader Rebecca White and current Labor members is whether they want this discredited model of governance to continue in the future.  

  • Dr James Boyce is a Tasmanian historian and writer.
  • His later book is Losing Streak: How Tasmania was Gamed by the Gaming Industry