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Are you playing the pokies, or are they playing you?

NEWS | Tess Holgate
Wednesday 14 October 2015

Christians are banding together with city councils to fight for poker machine reform, as Australians continue to gamble away $21 billion a year.

In the year to March 2014, $11 billion of the total gambling bill was lost to poker machines in pubs and clubs. Now, a new group called ‘Alliance on Gambling Reform’ is seeking to ramp up community pressure against the “addictive design of the poker machine”.

Allison Keogh, spokesperson for the Alliance on Gambling Reform says it’s been known for some time that poker machines are problematic, but it is hoped that a new documentary, Ka-ching! to be released next week will push the issue back on the national agenda. The documentary, funded by Screen Australia, will look at the social cost of the pokies and state government reliance on tax revenue from gaming machines.

“The problem we have is that [poker machines] are everywhere,” says Ms Keogh. “We’ve got 20 per cent of the worlds’ machines, and five times per capita more than the United States, and it’s really causing a lot of damage.”

Ms Keogh says that when it comes to poker machines, the gambling industry continues to talk about “problem gamblers”, casting blame on the user and diverting conversation away from the product itself.

“Roughly 30 per cent of people who play [the pokies] end up with a problem. If any other product caused 30 per cent of people to get sick we would actually look at the product rather than blaming the person,” she says.

The Alliance is aiming to kickstart a new debate on poker machines, without the interference of the gaming industry.

“The last time this issue was raised, the people who were pro-reform were trying to fight on their own against a big campaign led by the industry. Instead, I think we can collectively challenge this, and lead the debate down the path of listening to the experts and those that have experienced harm.”

The states receive roughly ten per cent of their revenue from taxes imposed on gambling (an estimated $3 billion of which comes from poker machines across the nation).

“Frankly I don’t think it’s good enough for state governments to say ‘we need that revenue,’ because they wouldn’t say that about any other product that is causing harm,” says Allison.

The Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, led by Tim Costello, is supporting the new Alliance.

“Poker machines are a counterfeit experience of grace,” said Mr Costello. “They promise blessing and the favour of ‘the gods’ yet end up destroying lives and communities.

“Proverbs says ‘We may throw the dice, but the LORD determines how they fall’ (Pr 16:33), yet poker machines have removed God from the equation.

“We have allowed the greedy to design and build machines that steal futures. This is happening in your parish – ruining marriages, sending people bankrupt, leaving kids hungry. This is not the vision we have of a flourishing life in God’s good world.”

Other Christian organisations, including activist group Common Grace and the Australian Christian Lobby are also getting behind the cause.

“We have been involved in the anti-poker machines fight for many years now,” says ACL managing director Lyle Shelton. “We are keen to support the Alliance because we’ve got to win hearts and minds in the public because we’ve hit a political stalemate on this issue.

“The governments need to wean [themselves] off poker machine revenue. That might take some time. I could live with that, so long as there was a plan. At the moment there is no plan. Even a five-year plan to scale back taxation on gambling revenue would be progress.”

Mr Shelton says that he’d like to see poker machines banned. “They’re addictive. They’re rigged. I think we should ban them.”

If that’s not possible, then at the very least he’d like to see the introduction of one dollar betting limits.

“This is really hitting communities that are vulnerable,” says Common Grace spokesperson Jess Smith.

“It’s really horrifying how much money is going into this thing, and when you hear the stories of just how vulnerable we are to these pokie machines and how difficult it is to untangle from any addiction, there’s a Christian sense of ‘the truth will set you free,’ and we want people to be free and not enslaved to addiction.”

The Alliance wants to build a grassroots movement big enough to challenge the gambling industry on a more equal footing than previous campaigns that have called for poker machine reform.

“The strategy is not a politically-targeted campaign,” says Ms Smith. “It’s trying to build a people movement so that when the politicians want to do it, there are people who are ready to stand against the clubs.”

Image: Drew Douglas | Flickr, CC License

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