Tim Costello

So how on earth did Pokies surface as a key issue in NSW for the March State Election?

Well it started last year when former Gaming Minister Victor Dominello recommended that there be a universal cashless card to play NSW Pokies. Just as he had put NSW drivers licences on line he saw an opportunity to remove criminal money being laundered at pokies by a card which could offer protections where gamblers could set a limit and a time line by locking them in with a pre commitment before play.

The NSW Pokies industry with a turnover of $95 billion a year was so outraged they demanded his scalp and he was duly removed from the Gaming portfolio.

The cashless card was dead. Killed by the secret shadow Cabinet (NSW Clubs) that has funded political donations and demanded MOU’s (Memo of Understanding) before any election where both major Parties promise they will never put up taxes nor change regulations. What vested interest in Australia gets that protection? 

When the Industry roars it always wins and with Dominello it  had certainly roared. And it has always been thus, as in truth it runs NSW politics and always has since 1955 when the only places in the world with legal pokies were Las Vegas and Sydney. 

NSW has 35% of the world’s pokies in Clubs and pubs. Most pokies elsewhere are in Casinos and destination gambling but not open in a shopping strip when you were not planning to gamble but to shop! Such ubiquitous accessibility explains why Australia has the greatest gambling losses per capita in the world and those losses are 40% higher than the nation that comes second – Singapore. 

Pokies are the crack/cocaine of gambling. If the USA’s blind spot is guns, ours is poker machines. Americans love their guns defeating any gun reform.  Ostensibly we love our pokies entrenching the power of NSW Clubs and the AHA. (Australian Hotels Association.)

Secret Investigation

But that all changed in October 2022 when the NSW Crime Commission released its year long secret investigative report into money laundering, citing billions of dollars of dirty money washing through the pokies. No longer was it just the punter hurt-  and remember it is less than 20% of the NSW adult population who ever play the pokies. It was potentially any of us who has been burgled or had drugs sold to our kids. 

Proceeds of crime laundered at the pokies means criminals can walk away clean by receiving a cheque demonstrating they were just playing the machines.

Premier Perrotet announced he was going to introduce a cashless card and the secret Cabinet roared. If you have wondered how Opposition Leader Chris Minns could resist  any bipartisan offer to clean this up it is because Labor is both terrified of the muscle of this secret Cabinet and has much self interest.  The Randwick Labor Club  in Sydney is a 3 site pokies operation owned by the Labor Party with millions in profit. Equally, National Party members have been both terrified to speak up as they are duchessed by donations and support from the Clubs.

But a crack had appeared in the secret Cabinet. How could they oppose the Crime Commission and the NSW Police Commissioner calling for a universal cashless card? And the heat was so great for Chris Minns that he had to look like he was doing something. His policy announced on 16 January at least banned future political donations from Clubs and some signage but on the real reform issue he totally buckled. He should have declared that by the end of his first term punters would need a cashless card to play any pokies in NSW. That is what the Crime Commission recommended to the NSW Unions, countless health practitioners and civic leaders. Instead Minns tried smokes and mirrors trick namely calling for a trial of a cashless card on 500 pokies over twelve months. We have had four voluntary trials already and all the criminals do is go to the 90,000 pokies not in the trial to launder their money. 

That is why universal means universal. And when 62% of all revenue going through pokies comes from problem gamblers (Productivity Commission) the shame means no problem gambler will get a card to play at one of those 500 machines in the trial. Make it universal and there is no shame as it applies to all. 

But yet another trial is exactly what Clubs NSW wanted in order to kill a card and Chris Minns delivered for the secret cabinet again.

All Clubs Different

But it is an interesting and varied story. Not all Clubs are like those big Club Directors on the Board of Clubs NSW who are all from mini casinos with over 600 Poker machines and paying their CEO’s salaries of more than $1 million per year. Some 20% of Clubs have no pokies  at all and still  serve the community brilliantly. The smaller to medium clubs in regional areas with pokies are largely trying to reduce their dependence on pokies, unlike the mini Casinos (represented on the Clubs NSW Board) who get over 80% of their revenue from machines. Neither of these two types clubs –  no pokies or small number of pokies –  ever get to serve on the Board of NSW Clubs. These smaller Clubs with a bar and a bowling green and a few poker machines are serving the community for those who are so inclined. Yet these local clubs are squashed and dictated to by  they heavyweight Clubs NSW which should be renamed Mini Casinos NSW. 

These smaller community Clubs often see the pokies addiction,  the crime and damage as a result, and want to limit it in their community.

After a number of Royal Commissions into Australian Casinos now all pokies in Casinos must move to a cashless card. And the same is now happening to all pokies in Tasmania with bipartisan support. If Tasmania can do it why not NSW? 

I think we know the answer Mr Minns. No man can serve two masters and your choice seems to serve NSW Clubs not the Crime Commission or the people of NSW.

Tim Costello is chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform and the former CEO of World Vision Australia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.