Pokies are soul-destroying. People sit on stools, eyes glazed over, looking like they're dosed up on soma, the soporific drug from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It is not like the craps table in a casino, where there is frenzied excitement. Or the TAB, where punters apply their knowledge, usually unsuccessfully, to pick a winner. With the pokies there is no active engagement. Players make nothing happen, just wait for whatever fate has in store. To steal a phrase from Karl Marx, they have become "flesh and blood appendages to the machine".
And yet. Last week a colleague went away with her family for a long weekend. Going to the RSL for a meal, she decided to risk five bucks on the pokies. Straight off, she won $177. She was thrilled and cashed it in straight away. The winnings paid for the meal and their overnight accommodation. And she probably won't go near a poker machine for another year or more.
So is the problem with the pokies, or with those who play them? Is it the responsibility of clubs to stop tempting us and state governments to limit licences, or should we be expected to exercise self-control? As adults, shouldn't we accept the responsibility of handling our own money and leading our own lives without needing actors, businessmen or politicians to tell us what to do?
The Rabbitohs' co-owners, Russell Crowe and Peter Holmes à Court, have won widespread praise for their push to ban pokies from the South Sydney Leagues Club. They want to scrap the machines in the hope of attracting a new clientele.
Explaining why he wanted to get rid of machines, Holmes à Court estimated that half of the money lost on the club's pokies came out of welfare payments. He thought it was inconsistent for the club to sponsor community assistance programs while siphoning money from the very people it was trying to help.
Australia clearly has a problem with pokies. A quarter of a million people have a gambling problem as a result of playing the pokies, and they are not the only addicts. Most clubs and pubs rely heavily on profits from the machines, and state governments depend on them to generate revenue.
Most of the machines are located in the poorer suburbs, and most of the people losing money on the pokies are low-income and poorly educated. There is a real dilemma here, a tension between the liberal instinct to allow people to run their own lives, and the paternalistic concern to prevent them from wrecking their lives through bad decisions. Pokies are not the only area where this dilemma surfaces.
Consider recreational drugs. Many middle-class people smoke a joint on a Saturday night, and it is difficult to argue that it does them any serious harm. But a few years ago I conducted focus groups with disadvantaged youngsters in Melbourne and was shocked by the destructive effect heavy cannabis use was having on them. It dominated their lives and rendered them quite unemployable.
It is the same with alcohol. Sydney's Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, wants to relax the licensing laws to allow European-style wine bars. Melbourne has them already, and the case for reform seems compelling. Only the hoteliers are against it. Yet in some remote Indigenous communities alcohol is wreaking havoc, and the Federal Government is enforcing alcohol bans in an attempt to restore a semblance of order.
So is it a case of one law for the rich and another for the poor? Are we happy allowing middle-class mums an occasional flutter while we restrict access to pokies in lower-class neighbourhoods? Is it OK for university types to smoke joints and go to wine bars while we impose drug and alcohol bans on Northern Territory Aborigines?
This question goes to the heart of current social policy. The Federal Government is withholding a portion of welfare payments from "irresponsible" families and is diverting the money to cover their rent and food bills, rather than allowing them to blow the cash on booze, drugs or gambling. Whole communities in the Northern Territory have been targeted in this way, and similar schemes are being tested in non-Indigenous areas.
This policy is controversial because it is paternalistic. It implies people are incompetent and that they need the government to tell them how to run their lives. For many people, this just is not true.
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