The secret misfortune of the lucky country

March 1, 2020; Publisher: ; Format:

At 10am on a Saturday, the Epping Shopping Plaza is bustling with screaming children, pensioners pushing their shopping jeeps, and parents waiting impatiently as coffee machines whir. Waxy supermarket produce gleams under fluorescent lights, home wares are stacked high in shop windows, clothing racks spill out into the mall, and the smell of baking bread wanders through the crowd.

Out a side door, facing a lonely, gusty section of the car park, squats the entrance to the Epping Shopping Plaza Hotel. Its facade is smoky glass and promotional decals. The venue is home to a hundred poker machines, which account for the highest losses of anywhere in the state. Every year, gamblers lose $18 million in this place. At 10am on a Saturday, it is full of people.

The machines bleep and purr, with muted flashes of golden light and the occasional tinkering of coins on metal. People rarely look away from the screen, their gaze locked in their individual world. It is hard to tell if they have been here all night, or rose early to claim their spot. Some are standing, beside the chair, tapping the buttons impatiently, as if they had intended to leave but are somehow magnetically prevented from doing so.

Australians love to gamble. A commitment to luck is a central organising principle of national life. It suits a people living in a climate of extremes, isolated on an island continent. Objective analysis, careful insight and level-headed criticism all seem like okay ideas, but they lack a certain warmth. They are hard to believe in; they are missing a touch of whimsy. You wouldn’t want to put your faith in them. You wouldn’t want to bother with them when you’re having a drink at the pub. But chance serves as a convenient alternative to the thorny concepts of justice and fairness. Luck is how we revel in our success without being a tall poppy. It’s how we accept that some people have to suffer, even if they do not deserve it, because of their rotten luck. It’s how we justify indifference to cruelty. Luck is the god to which the underdog prays, and we all pray with them.

But we also have a problem. According to credible estimates, we are the biggest losers in the world when it comes to gambling. And not all gambling is the same. Quite specifically, we have a pokies problem. We lose $12 billion on them annually, which represents half of our total gambling losses, and makes us a global outlier in all the wrong ways.

Pokies are the crack cocaine of gambling: highly addictive, deeply damaging and widely available. Many Australians enjoy betting money in all sorts of ways, and manage to keep it together. But pokies are a different beast, almost a category error when we talk about gambling. They generate a specific kind of relationship between person and machine that means the intensity and isolation outstrip all other forms of taking a punt. People often turn to them when they are down on their luck, and the pokies suck them dry. The amount we lose on them is more than the new national space agency’s inaugural annual budget. It’s more than our entire contribution to the Cancer Moonshot program, which aims to accelerate research to fight cancer. It’s more than we spend educating kids in government schools. In fact, it’s more than all these things combined. The amount we lose on pokies represents around the same amount we spend on meat, and only a little bit less that what we spend on alcohol. It is Australia’s nasty little secret, hiding in plain sight.

Australia is a country defined by luck, and a misunderstanding of the nature of that luck. Because while bad luck is a burden to be borne with stoicism, a little bit of good luck can justify all manner of wrong conclusions. Good luck brings a moment full of power and possibility, which disappears in an instant. Just a taste of a win can leave you chasing that elusive feeling for a very long time.

But what’s wrong with wanting to try your luck?

We have more opportunities than we could wish for. At one point, data showed we hosted a fifth of the world’s poker machines. Around half of those machines – 94,000 of them – are in New South Wales. Nevada is the only jurisdiction in the world with more. They are mostly tucked away, in pubs and clubs, often the indicator of their presence is the bold lettering on the front that serves as a kind of dog whistle for addicts while the rest of us experience banner blindness. They are, in many ways, fully integrated into the daily life of Australia. The Bankstown Sports Club hosts numerous cafes and sprawling restaurants, an indoor waterfall, an imitation Venetian piazza. It has a grand ballroom, a theatre and a kids’ party area. All of which seems fine enough until you realise that the entire monumental venue is built on the revenue from the 665 poker machines, which is around $80 million each year. Like fish in water, it can be hard to notice that all around us people are taking their chances on a regular basis in quite serious ways.

There are around a hundred thousand people who have a serious gambling problem in this country. The same number again is close to having one. For every one of those individuals, between five and ten people are affected, facing an increased incidence of poor health, family violence, criminal behaviour, financial distress, the neglect of children, and suicide. A friend of mine can recall the exact year that pokies were introduced in Victoria, because it was the year her parents started leaving her in the car long into the night.

Pokies and the misery they create have become an accepted part of life. They feel like an indelible part of the topography, like sandstone cliffs or heatwaves or rip tides. In a place of drought and flood, to wager on an outcome is a fitting kind of sport. Like any other form of risk-taking, from the stock market to reality television, the game of life feels like a game of chance, and pokies fit right in. Pokies reflect a distinctly Australian form of predatory capitalism, rendered in an atomised experience.

The impact of pokies is enormous, but also paradoxically, largely ignored. One reason for this is class. Pokies have historically been a working class pastime, unlike the aristocratic sport of kings that lights up opera houses. High rollers are drawn into casinos, but for pokies venues, it is low stakes, repeat players who are the target demographic. The majority of machines and the majority of venues are concentrated in the poorest parts of the country. The more machines you put in an area, the more addiction you get, and – worse still – machines in poorer areas also generate larger losses. The average household in Fairfield in New South Wales lost $5,668 in 2016-2017, around fifteen per cent of the average local income, whereas in Ku-ring-gai, in the leafy north, losses per household were just $22.50. The effects of poker machines, according to researcher Charles Livingstone, ‘are therefore felt most strongly by those who can least afford it.’

Gamblers bear responsibility for their choices, as we all do. But such judgments ought to be a matter of degree, and it would be folly to ignore the social context. The Woolworths-controlled ALH Group is the third largest pokies operator in the country – another fact that rarely gets aired in public – running 12,000 machines. Staff members at some of their venues were busted recently for keeping a log on regular players as part of a strategy for keeping them gambling for longer. Woolworths recently announced it is divesting from the pokies business as of next year, but it marks the end of a decades-long foray into the lucrative industry.

When we talk about gambling, we prefer to discuss the failings of the people who consume it; we rarely focus on the intentions of those who make the product. The gambling lobbyists know all too well – especially from their friends in the alcohol industry – that medicalising the excessive consumption of their product means that there is less attention paid to the problematic nature of the product itself. It focuses attention onto a small minority of consumers. It becomes an issue of personal responsibility, for the individual to bear and seek assistance to manage, rather than anything attributable to structures like law, policy or the profit motive. It treats addiction essentially as an unfortunate personal disappointment, rather than a problem that has arisen as a result of design choices.

But poker machines are very much designed objects. Nothing about them is an accident of fate. Countless hours go into refining the experience from the music and the lighting to the position of the chair. Gaming floors are laid out in specific ways, to guide the flow of people into eddies and backwaters. When someone collapses on a large gaming floor in Las Vegas, the confusing nature of the layout has repeatedly prevented paramedics from finding their way to the patient. The same approach to venue design exists in Australia.

The real money, however, is in the interface. The way a game looks, from the way in which symbols roll into view, to the way in which a win is presented on screen, is carefully curated at great expense. It’s something we all experience, in fact – vast amounts of the research on gambling have informed the design of many social media platforms. The immensely popular game Candy Crush was developed using the same principles applied in pokies design. If you’ve ever scrolled through a social media feed for longer than you intended, you can appreciate the power of a technological object dictating how you behave.

People touched by poker machine addiction rarely run for office, or get jobs in the media, or make policy. They are often the kind of people who are easy to blame for their own misfortune. To take up their cause can feel like meddling, so it can be just easier not to see them. The clubs love to spruik themselves as cultural institutions of the working class – as though such a thing is unimaginable without gambling revenue – rendering their detractors snobs and bores. The worse thing to be in a country enamoured with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune is a wowser. No one likes someone who says that harmless fun isn’t actually harmless. It is easier to ignore the whole thing. The policy and pundit class settles into a comfortable paralysis, while the clandestine metastases of addiction continues, evidenced by increases in mental health presentations, domestic violence incidents and prison populations.

It is not that the industry is unregulated, but rather the regulations feel a little bit all tip, no iceberg. The Victorian rules tinker at the edges: limits on eftpos cash withdrawals at the bar (only $500 per day), limited trading hours (to a mere 20 hours per day) and a well-publicised voluntary self-exclusion regime that is highly impractical across the hundreds of venues with thousands of staff. Most states regulate the speed of play and set maximum bets. But even with the tightest rules you can lose $600 an hour. In New South Wales, where the rules are less than tight, you can lose $1200 per hour. This is a state where the average household spends just under $1500 in a week on living expenses.

Another person I spoke to who used to work in gambling policy eventually gave up and quit. We often meet at a café in Fitzroy, a suburb laced by laneways where it is easy to imagine raucous games of two-up out the back of historic pubs in centuries past, a remarkably different experience to the isolation of working class gambling today. We sit just up the road from the Tote pub, an icon of the sleazy intersection of gambling and labour politics. One day, he told me he stopped working in policy because he couldn’t stand the endless quibbling about the regulatory regime as though it mattered. He was exposed to the other concealed truth of gambling in Australia: the regulators are busy doing lots of things that do very little to address the elephantine prospect of the social harm at the core of the industry.

This reality represents an impressive win for the industry, but there was little luck involved. Lobbyists for pokies venues have always thrown large amounts of cash at the democracy problem, showering friends on both sides of the aisle with tens of thousands of dollars to hold the line. Key players – perhaps most notoriously Clubs Australia – have shown they can run highly sophisticated and well funded campaigns against any kind of significant reform. Tim Costello from the Alliance for Gambling Reform has labelled the casino and gaming industry our equivalent of the National Rifle Association. Indeed, ClubsNSW sent representatives to Washington DC to hear from the NRA about how to use large memberships to create ‘grassroots political campaigns.’

State politicians, of course, can be a little coy about just how critical pokies are to their coffers. As Tim Freeman sings in Blow up the Pokies: ‘They’re taking the food off your table, so they can say that the trains run on time.’ Pokies generate a cool $1.5 billion for the New South Wales government each year, $1 billion for Victoria and $750 million for Queensland. In Victoria, they were introduced by Joan Kirner – a Premier whose legacy has somehow escaped being associated with such a devastating policy. Her predecessor, John Cain, told me that the industry was banging on the door at the end of his term. And after he left? ‘Let’s just say they were in the living room, pissing on the furniture.’ Another trail-blazer adored by many progressives, Julia Gillard, is also rarely associated with her decision as Prime Minister to renege on a deal with Andrew Wilkie to reform gambling policy federally. The Australian Labor Party, supposedly the political arm of the organised working class, actually owns pokies venues, and makes around $25 million off their 488 poker machines annually. Gambling policy in Australia is a textbook example of regulatory failure, where politicians live in fear of lobbyists and prioritise their short-term interests over their constituents.

This bankruptcy in our representative political system has all sorts of insidious consequences. It’s easy to mock faith in the American dream, but at least that aspiration, for all its faults, is pegged to a concept a merit. It is predicated on a belief that society functions according to the logic of cause and effect, that how hard you work will impact on your fate. That belief may be misplaced in all sorts of ways, but it stills sees people as heroes of their own stories who can influence their environment. There is something deeply nihilistic about a social character beholden to luck. Faith in luck is the opposite of intention. Commitment to chance is the inverse of agency. It betrays a belief that our actions in the world and their impact are utterly disconnected; there is no point in trying to be good or trying too hard. We let go, and let ourselves be dictated to by fate. Our public life is organised in such a way that efforts to change things are repeatedly spurned. The idea that we could collectively grapple with the universal responsibility of nurturing autonomy while minimising harm is debunked by the second-rate state of politics. Apathy sets in. Sheer chance becomes a viable religion.

It produces a certain cynical resignation, a disengagement that is both comforting and annihilating. Anthropologist Natasha Schüll, in her detailed and devastating portrait of the industry, Addiction By Design, outlines how poker machines create for gamblers ‘a personal buffer zone against the uncertainties and worries of their world.’ It creates a form of suspended animation or insulation from the grimness of material reality. To that extent, she observes, ‘[t]heir aim is not to win but simply to continue.

This feeling (Schüll calls it ‘the zone’) is what Crown Casino tried to cultivate when it distributed plastic picks featuring the Crown logo that gamblers could jam into the machine so they wouldn’t even the need to press the button. But here is a good news story: Crown was actually fined just a month before for tampering with machines by blanking out buttons, which confining the choices a gambler could make. I write ‘actually fined’ because this was an unprecedented step from the regulator, whom rarely hands down such penalties. Just a few months earlier, the Labor Party actually ran on a platform of phasing out poker machines in pubs and clubs Tasmania. Even though it lost the election, it looks as though it will maintain the policy position, representing something of a paradigm shift in electoral politics. When the Opera House was used as a bill board to advertise a horse race, the protest this inspired drew national attention to the grubby influence the gambling industry has over even sacred cultural institutions.

In these moments of possibility, the light starts to reach through the cracks in our broken system. Because with poker machines, their greatest power is their greatest weakness. Their design features, which given them the capacity to disgorge cash from punters, can be changed with relative ease. One of the key recommendations of the Productivity Commission was the implementation of what is commonly known as the 1/120 rule – $1 maximum bets such that the maximum possible loss is $120 per hour. Credible research indicates this would affect specifically the losses experienced by problem gamblers, rather than the occasional player. In the digital age, it would be easy and cheap to implement widely on machines. It is one of the reforms that industry lobbyists fear the most.

As is commonly the case with all kinds of addiction, the problem is deeper than the object of the addiction itself. The object may be well-designed and opportunistic at recruiting devotees. But people are also lonely, exhausted and bored, lacking in social connection. At its heart, there is something political about the crisis Australia faces, and pokies addiction to some degree is a symptom. Until we find a way to dethrone the god of luck, to restore a sense of agency and possibility to the heart of public and political life, pokies addiction can end up being a displacement for despair arising from a rational political apathy, with the potential to be substituted with some other destructive encounter or substance. We need to imagine how we might organise ourselves differently, not just to defeat the regulatory deadlock that allows the industry to profit from misery, but also to live through the experience of disorganising that misery itself through the development of social bonds.

As we collaborate, share stories, protest and debate, we can start to see how the nexus of power and money can be challenged. We can see how the weakness generated by apathy is neither fixed nor fatal, but something that can be reversed in seeking to reclaim an alternative society. By embracing the possibility of another world – rather than gambling everything in the hope escape – we reveal the truth about our secret misfortune.

First published in Meanjin: