Pokies campaigner sees appetite for change in Tasmania

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James Boyce and Professor Kate Warner, Governor of Tasmania

James Boyce and Professor Kate Warner, Governor of Tasmania, at the announcement of the 2017 Premier’s Literary Prizes. Picture Roger Lovell.

Tasmanian author and Wesley Hobart UCA Faith Community member James Boyce believes the State can finally rid its pubs and clubs of the scourge of poker machines as opposition to the ‘one-armed bandits’ intensifies.

Dr Boyce was speaking after his latest book, Losing streak – How Tasmania was gamed by the gambling industry, won the People’s Choice Award at the biennial Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Prizes on Monday night. He said the award was very humbling and showed that the general public was concerned about the impact of pokies in Tasmania.

The book examines the often cosy relationship between Tasmanian governments and Federal Hotels over the last 50 years. Dr Boyce investigated a litany of poorly conceived government decisions made over the last five decades, which seem to have benefitted no one except Federal Hotels.

The company was granted the first casino licence in Australia by the Reece Labor Government, opening the doors of Wrest Point Hotel Casino in the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay in 1973. Less than a decade later Federal won the licence for the state’s second casino in Launceston.

But key to Federal’s growth was monopoly control of all pokies in the state. By 2002 Tasmania – the most socio-economically disadvantaged state in the nation – had one poker machine for every 84 people of gambling age compared with one-to-101 in Victoria.

Dr Boyce suggested his award highlights that Tasmanians believe they have a very real opportunity to fight back against the pokies and Federal Hotel’s control.

“For many years I think Tasmanians have not really believed that had any way of making change. While they (the pokies) were considered horrible nothing could be done. We were stuck with them,” Dr Boyce said.

“But that has now shifted (with the pokies licence held by Federals expiring next year). Encouragingly for our democracy, people are accepting that it is within their power to change this and they are beginning to demand their politicians make the change.’’

Opinion polls suggest more than 80 per cent of the Tasmanian population oppose pokies operating in the suburbs.

With a state election in March, Dr Boyce said Tasmanians need to ensure the leaders of the two major parties – Liberal and Labor – recognise the electoral poison associated with aligning alongside gaming monolith Federal Hotels, which controls all pokies in pubs and clubs.

James BoyceHe said gambling policy could be a defining issue in the poll, particularly as Federal’s monopoly expires next year, albeit subject to a five-year phase-out clause.

Dr Boyce is confident that, should either major party opt for a policy which bans pokies in pubs and clubs, they will benefit greatly at the ballot box.

The Liberals have already said they will not ban pokies post-2023 while Labor has not finalised its position.

While those who play the pokies have not been winning, neither has the government in the form of tax receipts. Tasmania is estimated to have lost between $400 million to $700 million in tax revenue due to the monopoly relationship.

Dr Boyce, who has been short-listed for almost every major Australian literary award, said almost 75 per cent of Tasmanian clubs and pubs did not have pokies. The majority of those that exist are sited in lower socio-economic regions where the impact on impoverished communities and people is the most pronounced.

Independent federal member for Denison in Tasmania, Andrew Wilkie, launched the ‘Pokies are the Problem’ campaign on Wednesday. The campaign aims to cement poker machines as a top issue in the upcoming Tasmanian election.

The campaign will highlight the fact that poker machines cause, or at least add to, many social ills including crime, domestic violence, suicide and childhood poverty.  It will be rolled out across traditional and social media ahead of the March poll.

Mr Wilkie said the public no longer accepted the spin from the poker machine industry and major parties that poker machines did no harm.

“The community really needs to pressure the government and the alternative government and candidates to take poker machines out of the suburbs, get them out of the pubs and clubs and ensure that effective harm-minimisation measures are in place on the poker machines that remain in the casinos,” he said.

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