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Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation

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Australia is unashamedly a nation of gamblers. We have a public holiday for a horse race. A law against two-up is suspended every ANZAC Day. And lotto tickets are a weekly tradition.

Since 1956 Poker Machines have been legal in the State of New South Wales, supporting an entire hospitality and entertainment industry for decades. By the early 1990s they were rolled out across all Australian states, with the exception of Western Australia.

But at what cost?

ABC’s new documentary Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation delves behind a largely secretive industry to investigate whether Pokies are addictive and, indeed, fair to the player. It pushes a lot more buttons on the politics behind this $12B industry.

“Have we designed the perfect addiction machine?” narrator David Wenham asks.

Amongst the interview subjects are former Victorian govt minister Carolyn Hirsh who was in office when the Kirner government welcomed “rivers of money into state treasuries,” and Tim Costello, CEO of World Vision, who saw early personal tolls on marriages, families and an increase in crime. “I remember thinking, what is this?” he asks.

“The pokies were there on the weekend when I didn’t have the children. I wasn’t alone,” one addict confides. “But it took over everything. Before I knew it I was trapped.”

Much of the documentary looks at the science behind the showbiz. Gaming images of pyramids, Arabian horses, princes and princesses appeal to the inner child in us. Composers reveal the machine music is escapist, using major keys for wins and no sound for losses. Reinforcement is constant. Losses are cleverly disguised as wins.

US designer Mike Shackleford, known as “The Wizard of Odds” explains how pokies are built around a return percentage of 90%, with 10% to the house -but players keep playing because they are reinforced with diminishing wins.

“I know what an awful bet they are because they I design these things,” he admits.

Politics plays a big part in the Pokies industry with 5-8% of state revenue drawn from pokie addicts.

This week Peter Garrett’s comments to the doco attracted headlines after airing in preview on 7:30. There are suggestions he has retracted his comments however in the preview I viewed he said of industry representatives, “One came over to me and said, ‘We’re looking forward to supporting you.’ They handed over an envelope which I unwittingly took. I thought it might be literature or something like that. It was a cheque. I gave it back. But it was clear to me that the connection between clubs and hotels and politics was quite an intimate one.”

There is limited defence from the clubs and casinos, the doco would benefit from more.

Anthony Ball, from NSW Clubs, acknowledges problem gambling.

“We think that it’s a human problem that needs a human solution,” he explains. If he gave any suggestions they aren’t included here.

Former Independent Rob Oakeshott says the gaming lobby campaigns its arguments better than anybody, with powerful voices within our two biggest parties, plus influential power brokers such as James Packer.

Peter Garrett acknowledges, “They declared war on the reforms and then they declared war on me.”

Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation, produced by Neil Lawrence and Mitzi Goldman, is impressive stuff, on par with a Four Corners investigation.

Screening to an older ABC audience it will hit a target market, many of whom will possibly be upset by its revelations. Ultimately, making more informed decisions can only be good in the long run.

Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation airs 9:30pm Tuesday on ABC.

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