Pokies. What’s to lose if we get rid of them?

Victorian MPs should spend some time in a pokies joint and see the machines’ corrosive influence, writes Catherine Deveny.

HERE’S a question for you. How would it harm our society if we eradicated gambling, and, in particular, poker machines? It wouldn’t. What would we lose? Nothing. If we banned pokies, people would find other things to do and the Government would find other things to tax.

And if the pokie addicts missed the feeling of losing money, they could just flush half their pension money or their pay cheque down the toilet every week. How can we live with ourselves and support a Government that is raking in $1 billion in toxic revenue from pokies? I can’t understand how we’ve let this happen. It’s dirty money. And it stinks.

An article in The Sunday Age, “Pokies scourge creates new criminal class” outlined yet again how poker machines are causing law-abiding citizens to turn to crime to feed gambling addiction. I was sickened for the thousandth time to be reminded of how people’s lives and families are being ripped apart by these evil, mindless, addictive one-finger bandits.

I woke today to a beautiful, glittery Melbourne day. The air was sweet and the sky was blue, I popped on a nice frock, fixed my hair, dropped the kids off at school and drove in to Crown Casino.

A mate said: “I work near Crown and see all the pensioners pile out of the tram on my way to work.”

“On your way to work? What time does Crown open?”

He looked at me as if I were an idiot. “It’s open 24 hours a day.”

As I drove into the car park, I was asked to pay for my parking up front. The cold, stark reality of this great monstrosity of greed and broken dreams is that some people, maybe many people, don’t have the cash to pay for their parking when they leave. Let alone their mortgage, groceries, petrol, bills, car payments or child care.

As I write this I am sitting in front of a poker machine called Cash Express. There are others, indeed 2500 others. I look around at the faces of the people on the other machines. No one looks happy. Pokies do not bring joy. How bad are these people’s lives and how fractured are their souls if sitting in front of a poker machine on a beautiful day at 10am is an escape?

What would these people be doing if they didn’t have access to the pokies? Watching telly? Lying in bed? Flicking through a mag? Would any of those pastimes be more valuable? Maybe not, but at least they’re cheaper. None of these people around me punching the pokies has walked in here today expecting to be a loser. Despite knowing that these machines are programmed to make losers of them, they each feel as if they’re the lucky one. They are mesmerised by the pretty lights, the dark ,windowless room and the electronic music. Their basic instincts have been manipulated by thousands of dollars of interior design, flashing lights and electronic music researched and proven to separate people at their weakest from their money. Their faces don’t look happy, beautiful or wealthy. Just sad.

Gambling is theft and deception. It’s manipulative, corrosive and it diminishes us all. How are the social misery and catastrophic outcomes that poker machines create worth the bucks they pull in? I challenge the Victorian Government to take an excursion to a pokies joint and spend a couple of hours watching the faces, finding out about the lives behind the faces and then explain to me how any amount of money is worth that kind of cynical revenue raising. Politicians are elected for their brains, education, imagination and experience, so how is raising revenue through pokies the best we can do?

Why don’t they just cut out the middleman and tax stupid people, gullible people, sad people, tragic people, addictive people and broken people? Because that is exactly what they’re doing. The other day I drove past a pub and a sign next to the entrance to the gaming room read, “Everyone’s a winner!” No, they’re not. A friend told me about one of her students who works at a suburban pokies venue. A man won $5000 and gave her and another girl $100 each. When he left later that evening the girls had more money than he did.

Judge Roland Williams said he didn’t see “any real civilised justification for (poker machines) other than a means of indirectly taxing the people who are too stupid to work out what they are doing”. I’m with him. I have trouble reconciling my strong sense of civil liberty with the overwhelming feeling that all poker machines should be piled up and detonated. We humans are weak and some people need to be protected from themselves. We’re pleasure-seeking machines programmed to a certain level and type of risk that gambling exploits. We think “It won’t happen to me”, despite the fact that sometimes it does.

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