The Government has finally done something about the pokies. It is a compromise that makes no one happy, like most compromises. It might have some good effects, but we won’t know for quite a while, if at all. But the story of the invasion of poker machines is an interesting one, and indicative of our society.
I should begin by saying that I’m not any kind of gambler. I grew up in a family whose ethic was work. My father got up early and wrote maths textbooks, and did well at it. If we wanted something we saved for it. Hire purchase was frowned on. When the pokies arrived at their golf club, my father formed a rule: he would put 2/- in the machine, and no more. If he won he pocketed the winnings; if he lost he shrugged and moved on. Why put even 2/- in? Well, the club needed the money to improve its facilities, and he did not want to be a free rider.
Cut to Young, NSW, 1962. I am studying the Country Party for my PhD, and with the local Country Party MLA, George Freudenstein, a thoughtful and intelligent returned soldier. We do the main street, going into every shop, and then to the brand-new Services and Citizens Club. I have never been in anything quite so luxurious, and its large auditorium is amazing. I tell him how impressed I am.
Yes, says George, it’s wonderful. The food is subsidised by the pokies, as is the beer, and of course the entertainment. Just about everyone in the town and the district is a member, and they love it. But the club is draining money out of the rest of the commercial district. The pubs are losing, as are the cafes, and bills are not being paid. He comes across the downside of the success of the most impressive club, and it worries him. If you add in the success of these new motels, the whole character of Young is changing. And there are victims as well as winners.
It is a most interesting experience, doing the rounds with a politician who sees both sides of social change. That was fifty years ago, but the memory is strong. Country towns everywhere in NSW were changed by the pokies and the motels, and you can see the results today just by walking along the main streets. Oh, you need to add in the effects of the big food chains, Coles and Woolies, as well. Some of the old commercial heart of any country town is drab, uncared for and empty.
I am no sworn opponent of the licensed clubs, but they are certainly a mixed blessing. In time the pubs won the right to provide poker machines too, but that hasn’t done much to improve either their appearance or their ambience. OK, I’m not a pub-goer either. My parents didn’t drink much, and didn’t have a glass of wine before dinner until they had travelled to Europe after retirement.
The clubs are now a settled part of our existence, and although I don’t belong to one I certainly make use of them when we travel. Perhaps we always had problem gamblers, when horses and SP betting were the environment for most gamblers. We do have them now, in part because there is so much more discretionary money about, and poker machine players can get settled in before they realise that they have wasted more money than they expected. One theory is that excessive gambling is a form of addiction.
It is pointless asserting that governments should steer clear of interfering with clubs and with how people spend their money there. The downsides of gambling come on to the desks of politicians today, just as they did when poker machines were new. Our political system has an inbuilt push-pull mechanism, and the social consequences of our individual behaviours inevitably find their way into our parliaments.
As always, the moral imperative should start with us. Why do so many fall for the notion that we might win the huge jackpot, and ‘spend for the rest of our lives’? (What a devastatingly empty prospect!) I don’t much like the ‘nanny state’, where our rulers decide what is good for us, but no democratic system can avoid the responsibility for cleaning up after bad individual decisions lead to bad social outcomes.
And while I’m in this frame of mind, I’ll devote tomorrow’s essay to the demon drink!