Pokies critics are treating us like mugs ANTHONY BALL

The social elitists should stop tut-tutting at the working class plebs.

The social elitists should stop tut-tutting at the working class plebs.

OVER the past 20 years Australians have lost more than $2 billion on the Melbourne Cup. It's clearly a lot of money, but really indicates nothing more than the enormous popularity of the Cup. Yet the same "cumulative spend" approach is used by the anti-gambling lobby to denigrate poker-machines players and the venues that host them.

It's a nonsensical argument that allows a small group of social elitists to tut-tut at the working class plebs who choose to spend their discretionary income playing the pokies instead of attending the theatre, the opera or the race club committee room.

A more accurate way of measuring any adverse impact of pokies is to compare Victoria to the supposed anti-gambling nirvana of Western Australia, where pokies are restricted to the Burswood Crown Casino and clubs survive by serving beer and chicken schnitzels and holding lamington drives.

I was in Perth earlier this year and spent a morning walking around Lake Monger in the well-to-do suburb of Wembley. Looking out over the lake is the Wembley Bowling Club. The club was run down enough that I couldn't tell whether it had closed for good or was just closed for the day. As it turned out, the club does trade, but like other non-golf and yacht clubs in Western Australia, it has no money for refurbishments once cheques have been written to local sporting groups.

A comparison of problem gambling rates between Western Australia and Victoria is impossible because the West Australian government has never funded such a study. Without any proof that one state has fewer problem gamblers than the other, anti-gambling advocates turn to dollar spend, suggesting it is a proxy for the level of problem gambling.

West Australians gamble on average $672 a year compared with $1229 a year in Victoria. But just like betting on the Melbourne Cup, the figures indicate only the popularity of gambling. While West Australians may gamble less, they spend more on alcohol (in fact considerably more than Victorians do on gambling). But really, so what? It means nothing more than West Australians and Victorians spend their money in different ways.

Some anti-gambling advocates, such as Tim Costello, go further and say that suicide, relationship-breakdown and crime rates are evidence of the social costs of introducing poker machines in Victoria.

Poker machine critics regularly link problem gambling to suicide. Certainly we know that problem gambling can have tragic consequences for a small number of addicts. But for the anti-gambling lobby to suggest that poker machines are a significant contributor to many of those who take their own life is misleading and improper.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that in Western Australia, there are 11.2 deaths from suicide for every 100,000 residents. In Victoria, the number is substantially lower at 9.3. In NSW, where half the nation's poker machines exist, the rate is 8.0, the lowest of any state or territory in Australia.

Similarly, ABS figures do not support sweeping claims of mass marriage breakdowns caused by poker machine addiction. Last year there were 2.1 divorces for every 1000 West Australian residents compared to 2.2 for Victorians. In NSW, with its 100,000 poker machines, the number was again lower than both Victoria and Western Australia.

Crime is the anti-pokies lobby's most frequent declaration of poker machine-induced social harm. ABS numbers not only reveal this claim to be false, but show the crime rate in no-pokies WA to be the highest in the country.

The number of people who commit a financially motivated crime for every 100,000 West Australians is 553. The number in both Victoria and NSW is 435, suggesting Tim Costello's warnings of mass thieving by pokies players to fund their gambling habit to be yet more fear mongering.

A Department of Justice report last December, which examined the socio-economic impact of poker machines in Victoria, found no link between pokies and cash-based crime.

Since the federal government tore up its agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie to introduce mandatory precommitment, the anti-pokies lobby has switched its reform campaign to $1 maximum bets on low-intensity poker machines, which they claim exist in WA.

Even the briefest examination of poker machines in WA suggests the anti-gambling lobby has never taken the time to actually play a local poker machine. Not only do West Australian machines have no limit on how much you bet per spin, but they are extremely popular with the locals, earning $119,000 per machine last year.

The anti-gambling lobby's message that it is detrimental to the community to live in a state where people play poker machines, is unsubstantiated nonsense. Not only does Victoria enjoy a level of economic prosperity that makes it the envy of the world, but by many social measures it outperforms the resource-rich, pokie-poor state of Western Australia.

Twenty years after the introduction of poker machines into Victoria, surely we deserve better than to be treated like mugs by the anti-gambling lobby.

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