Finding refuge in a pokie

The City of Greater Dandenong is the most socially disadvantaged council area in the state of Victoria (where Melbourne is). It is home to many immigrants hoping to find new life and work in Australia, but with unemployment at over 11% in that area, the opportunities are not great. The absence of jobs is compensated by the plentiful opportunities to gamble; places where luck is a desert offering little succour.

Greater Dandenong has the highest annual gaming loss per head of population in Victoria – $984.32. This is not how much the average gambler lost; this is the total lost divided by all of the adults in the City of Greater Dandenong. If 20% of all adults had entered a gaming venue last year, then the average loss per gambler would be five times as high – nearly $5000. Over $110m was spent in “pokies” in that council area alone last year. For Victoria as a whole, the total was $2,504,343,302 in 2013/14. This is roughly equal to 1% of what Greece owes the EU!

Pokies is the name given to those slot machines (or electronic gaming machines) that you see people poking dollar after dollar into in Las Vegas. Pokies here are spoken about in warm tones, like the old guy in the first pub you ever went to who gently chatted away but didn’t try to be your best friend. They are harmless, occasionally interesting, and everybody has met one. The reason that everybody has met one is because they are everywhere.

In the UK, you may see a poke or two in some pubs and there will be the rare “amusements” that are usually empty, dark places that survive despite the absence of anyone knowing anyone who goes there. Here, bars will have huge rooms given over to pokies, and TVs with horse racing being shown.

Just your average pokie room in your local pub

Just your average pokie room in your local pub

Despite links between gambling and issues like mental health (and US research) and family violence, governments still keen to support the gambling industry even when local authorities oppose their expansion. In a relatively deprived area I work in, a pub wanted to increase the number of gaming machines by 19, which the council opposed, but the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal approved the application (an extra 13) but ordered the pub to give grants of $100,000 per annum to the community, including support for problem gamblers. The logic is that problems will be allowed to grow and then we’ll try and fix it.

The strange thing may be why politicians would let it grow in the first place. According to one independent senator, it may not be so strange when you read that the Australian Labor Party owns Labor Clubs, which in Canberra alone raised $25m from pokie machines in one year. The culture of betting spreads beyond pokies into a marriage between two great Australian loves – sports and betting. In an example of their intertwining, presenters in a TV programme covering a sports match will talk and show graphics about the odds on various games and aspects of those games. Sports and betting goes hand in hand, and when sports dominates conversation and culture, gambling is going to be pretty big business.

It doesn’t come much bigger than the Crown casino in Melbourne – one of the largest in the world. In the centre of the city along the banks of the river, it encompasses 2220,00 square feet, with a license for 500 gambling tables and 2500 machines, has three hotels and a glut of restaurants. It is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, except for Christmas Day, Good Friday and Anzac Day. On these days it is closed between 4am and midday.

I didn't think a glamourous photo would have been appropriate for this blog

The entrance to Crown Casino – more appropriate than the glitz and glamour of the river side facade or inside.

The casino is obviously very different to your normal pokie. It is all glitz, glamour and extra-special, whilst your pokie is the pair of jeans and trainers that you feel comfortable in. And just like you’ve had your favourite pair of trainers for years, your pokie has always been there. The pokie business realises that the more it can become a part of your life, the more comfortable you will feel going in there and the more you will spend.

That may be one of the reasons why the industry suggested that they become places of childcare, with associated tax breaks of course. Pokies are branding themselves as community clubs, and there has even been talk of these community clubs providing “cradle to grave” services, such as child care. The sad thing is that for many people they are places of haven or of community.

Earlier I mentioned about the link between problem gambling and family violence. It was discussed at a recent conference I attended that in many cases problem gamblers are women who go to pokies to escape violence at home and then become addicted. Pokies are free to enter, warm, have cups of tea and coffee, and some other people you can say hello to. In Australia, pokies are a place of refuge.


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