“And I wish,
I wish I knew the right words
To blow up the pokies
And drag them away.”
‘Blow Up The Pokies’ – Tim Freedman, The Whitlams.

COVID closed many things: gyms, cafes, restaurants, sporting venues. While many of us are looking forward to activities resuming as usual, there’s one in particular that we shouldn’t be excited about: the pokies.

Gambling as a form of leisure and social connection is well-embedded in the fabric of Australian society. It is so commonplace here that it is easy to forget that it is rare or even illegal in many other parts of the world. In fact, many migrants – particularly international students – report feeling significant pressure to gamble in order to ‘fit in’ with Australian culture.

Australians lose more money per person to gambling than any other country. Our fondness for gambling was evident in the altered patterns of consumer spending published in the early stages of lockdown – at the beginning of March there was a 71% increase in the rate of online gambling, compared to an average week of spending. This perhaps reflected the impact of the closure of pubs and clubs, and therefore the inaccessibility of traditional face-to-face modes of gambling such as poker machines and TAB betting; or maybe it was simply due to increasing amounts of time spent at home during the early phases of lockdown, bored and without access to usual leisure activities.

Whichever the case, this trend wasn’t short-lived. At the beginning of June, the same analysis  showed that online gambling had increased further to 110% of usual rates. In both March and June, this was a growth area that was second only to food delivery.

At the same time, a recent analysis revealed that a significant proportion of men who withdrew from their superannuation spent more than they normally would on gambling in the fortnight after receiving the super withdrawal – an average of $290, or 12%.

The increasing saturation of the gambling market by online and sports betting (there is a Ladbrokes-branded vehicle parked in my street as I write this, and in the past hour of Masterchef, I have counted twelve gambling advertisements – all accompanied, of course, by the hurriedly-spoken “gamble responsibly”) may lead you to think that the days of the humble pokie at the local RSL are behind us.

Not so.

It’s clear that Australians have been spending more time – and money – online during the pandemic, however the rapid growth in online modalities during COVID does not anywhere near match the massive decline in gambling that was prompted by the closure of pubs and clubs – and therefore, the pokies.

According to the Alliance for Gambling Reform, the first two months of lockdown brought savings of more than $421 million – and that’s just in the state of Victoria. In fact, the closure of the pokies has been saving Australian gamblers a total of $34.2 million per day. An economic crisis is looming; imagine if that money was spent supporting people’s basic needs or flowing back into our local communities, rather than clinking dully to the bottom of a machine.

Australians have long held a fascination with the pokies.

  • Almost a fifth (18% – that’s 200 000 machines) of the world’s poker machines are located in Australia, despite us making up just 0.3% of the global population.
  • Or to look at it another way: around the world, there are 7056 people to each poker machine; in Australia, there are 123 people per machine.
  • In fact, Australia’s pubs and clubs house 76% of the world’s non-casino poker machines.

To put it simply: we love the pokies.

With the re-opening of pubs and clubs across Victoria in sight, it’s an opportune time for us to re-examine this love affair.

Many people experiencing gambling harm reported that the initial lockdown period was an enormous relief – with gaming venues inaccessible, it became easier to abstain. As venues begin to re-open, it’s anticipated that it will become much more difficult. Gamblers Help are bracing themselves for an onslaught of distressed callers.

I have no doubt this may seem ‘wowser-ish’ to some readers. Certainly there are some people that are able to use poker machines in moderation, and experience little or no ill effect – but with machines purposefully designed to addict through their stimulation of the brain, the risk of harm is significant. Bankruptcy, housing stress, relationship discord, mental health problems – all show a strong correlation to gambling. It’s a potent neurobiological attraction, made worse by an industry that purposefully targets vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.

Some may say that those who are affected just need to practice more self-control or that they need better willpower. However, a public health approach, as proposed by numerous organisations including the Alliance for Gambling Reform and the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, does not place fault with the person experiencing gambling harm. Rather, gambling harm is understood as the expected – in fact, desired – result of a dangerous product; and like other public health issues, such as firearms, substances and seatbelts, the implementation of greater restrictions and limitations (such as $1 maximum bets, changes to opening hours, and various other harm reduction strategies) helps to protect our communities.

Gambling harm is often thought of as an affliction only of lower socioeconomic groups or the outer suburbs – also untrue. In fact, the City of Glen Eira ranks relatively highly in terms of gambling losses in Victoria: 14th out of 79 municipalities, with $74 million lost across Glen Eira’s 11 pokie venues last year.

With approximately half of Victoria’s Jewish community residing in this municipality – what does that mean for us?

Like many public health issues and social taboos – child abuse, substance use, family violence – it is tempting to believe that the Jewish community is somehow immune, yet this perception is very much misguided – and can actually make it harder to reach out for help.

“Gambling harm absolutely occurs in the Jewish community,” said Jewish Care financial counsellor Debbie Jacobs. “We’ve seen people from all walks of life – secular and religious, some wealthy, some not. And gambling harm doesn’t only affect the individual; it’s their broader network as well: partners, children, extended family, colleagues, friends. It may not necessarily be visible, because gambling – especially compulsive gambling – is often very hidden; but it is happening.”

Just ask Lior:*

“Betting is pretty common in my circle of friends – usually sports betting but occasionally we’ll go to the pub and play the pokies. For most of us it’s just $50 here and there but one of my friends has a serious problem. We’ve all tried to help him stop but he just can’t kick it. He’s getting married soon and I ended up loaning him money for the chuppah – he and his fiancée had been saving up for the wedding but he put it through the pokies. He begged me for a loan so that she wouldn’t find out. I know I’ll probably never see that money again and I’m okay with that – what I can’t stand is watching this ruin his life.” – Lior, 26.

There are lessons to be learned from COVID when it comes to gambling harm. Maybe we can’t blow up the pokies, as Tim Freedman suggested; maybe we can’t even keep them closed – but pokies reform would be a great place to start.

*name changed for privacy

If you or someone you know is experiencing gambling harm, contact Jewish Care on 8517 5999, Jewish Gamblers Anonymous on 0407 858 585 or Gambler’s Help Southern on 1800 262 376

To add your voice to the call for gambling reform, write to your local MP or visit https://www.pokiesplayyou.org.au/

Jewish Care is a member of the Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria BreakIT Gambling Harm Advisory Committee.

Article by Author/s
Cassandra Barrett
Cassie is the Program Manager of Healthy Communities at Jewish Care Victoria, with a portfolio focused on community education in the areas of mental health and wellbeing, parenting, family violence, and youth mentoring. She is also an active member of the progressive Jewish community where she volunteers as a board member. Cassie is particularly passionate about social justice, body politics and gender equity, and their intersection with Jewish life and tradition.

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