Battles lines drawn for pokie reform

“We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall.” (Proverbs 16:33 NLT)

The throw of the dice is now a central issue in the forthcoming NSW election on 25 March – more specifically, pokies reform.

There are a range of Christian views about gambling. For some believers, it is unequivocally a sin. For others it’s just a recreation, but, like alcohol, a recreation that should not be over-indulged.

Many would point out that it is fundamentally different to the sharemarket because it is a zero-sum game. By speculating on shares, the whole cake can grow through investment. At least in theory, all who play can win a bigger slice of that cake and prosper. But gambling is different. If I win and feel joy, then it can only be because someone else has lost and is feeling sad. Is that a Christian thing to participate in?

Dominic Perrottet made the most historic announcement in NSW social policy in my lifetime.

Whatever the different Christian approaches, we are now faced with a real choice. Half of Australia’s pokies are in NSW and it is indisputable that they are predatory and built for addiction. We have the world’s greatest gambling losses and that is simply because we have 76 per cent of the world’s pokies in pubs and clubs – and nearly 40 per cent of those pokies are in NSW. It is the belly of the beast. Most pokies around the world are in casinos – which is destination gambling. They are not on every second block!

State Premier Dominic Perrottet made the most historic announcement in NSW social policy in my lifetime, announcing that in the next term, he will legislate the cashless card. He said this reform is driven by his faith – by wanting to do the right thing. Should Perrottet win the March election, a universal cashless card, requiring a pre-commitment to set a limit on losses before play, will be rolled out to all pokies. That is half of Australia’s pokies, so this would soon become a national rollout, as other states would have to follow.


The cashless card kills two birds with one stone. Money-laundering criminals, who will never reveal their identity to get a card (linked to their debit account), are out. It is also a tool for pokies players who, once in the zone in front of these addictive machines, lose all track of time and all track of their losses. With this card, they will limit their losses before entering that mesmerising zone.

The universal cashless card was the first recommendation of the NSW Crime Commission (backed by the Police Commissioner), which found billions of dollars of dirty money being laundered in pokies at pubs and clubs – drug and burglary proceeds going through NSW pokies that have a $95 billion annual turnover. Imagine that money flowing to other states. No premier will want to be the beacon for that business, with criminals just migrating to their state.

Second, all casino pokies, after successive royal commissions, are now required to have a cashless card to mitigate money laundering and gambling harm. The Tasmanian Liberal government, with bipartisan support from Labor, is already introducing a universal cashless card with a maximum of $100 losses per day in all the island’s pokies, whether in casinos, pubs or clubs. Tasmania was the first jurisdiction to announce last year it will implement the cashless card. The move broke the power of the pokies lobby because it was bipartisan, giving them no one to turn to.

62 per cent of their pokies revenue comes from those with a gambling habit.

Unfortunately, Labor under Chris Minns in NSW has done the opposite. I am deeply shocked that a card that was first proposed in 2012 by then Labor PM Julia Gillard is being opposed by NSW Labor. Of course, Chris Minns tries to dress that up by saying he is open, but a card is untried, so he would have another voluntary trial with 500 machines.

We have already had ten voluntary trials in Australia. Sadly, the Labor policy is exactly the same tactic used to defeat the reforms proposed in 2012. The pokies sector is totally opposed to a cashless card and kicks it into the long grass. In truth, they are the only people left in Australia who are opposed to responsible gambling – because, as successive Productivity Commission reports into gambling have shown, 62 per cent of their pokies revenue comes from those with a gambling habit. Never underestimate the power that comes from a vested interest with a $95 billion turnover, which does not want to lose a dollar for the greater social good.

This underscores Perrottet’s groundbreaking leadership. In an effort to stop the pokies sector campaigning, he has promised a five-year transition and a $344 million package of compensation. Did this stop them? No, they have just doubled down.

[Perrottet] said this reform is driven by his faith – by wanting to do the right thing.

So on one side calling for reform are the Crime Commission, Police Commissioner, former deputy PM John Anderson and former PM John Howard, and Gerard Hayes, secretary of NSW Unions, along with health practitioners and reformers such Wesley Mission and me, and now Dom Perrottet. On the other side, standing with Minns, are Mark Latham, John Barilaro, David Elliot and the now sacked head of ClubsNSW Josh Landis. Extraordinary.

Opposition to this reform is even more extraordinary when you realise it is essentially only the super-profits made by the pokies pub and club barons that are at stake. Forty-four per cent of NSW pubs and 20 per cent of NSW clubs have no pokies at all, and both function fine.

This issue is what the Apostle Paul would call a principality and power. It is wickedness in high places driven by greed and until now, a network of invisible greedy interests that has captured a state.

The battle lines for this state election will have national ripple effects for pokies reform. They will also have ripple effects on transparency and integrity in government. For the first time, a Premier of NSW has refused to sign a pre-election MOU with ClubsNSW saying we promise not to change any pokies regulation. The powers are furious. Pokies reform is a central issue in this election, and we now have visibility about who has been pulling the strings in NSW up to now.

“We may throw the dice, but the Lord determines how they fall.”

Tim Costello AO is a well-known social justice advocate, a Baptist minister, Executive Director of Micah Australia and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.