There are lots of things that define Australia. Cricket, wallabies and barbeques are the things that first spring to mind. But there’s one thing that Aussies seem to love even more than all of these – the good old pokie.
A pokie is a slang word for slot machine. While pokie’s etymology is up for debate, its popularity is assured. You only have to look at the figures. It’s estimated that there are currently nearly 200,000 of the machines in the country with the vast majority being in New South Wales. That works out at one of the highest per capita figures anywhere outside the big gambling cities like Macau, Monaco and Las Vegas with one machine per every 144 members of the population.
To go back to the very beginning, the first ever pokies were licensed in NSW in 1956 with the ACT making them legal in 1976. Queensland and Victoria followed suit in 1991 and South Australia joined them a year later. Tasmania was the last state to get in on the pokie boom in 1997 while Western Australia still only allows them to be played in casinos.
The popularity of the pokie
There are a number of reasons why they are so prevalent in the country – a key one being their ubiquitous presence in pubs and bars. These machines are thought to generate as much as $56,000 in profit for the owner of the venue: with figures like that, it’s easy to see their appeal for bar owners. And with potentially high winnings for players it’s no wonder they enjoy huge popularity in the Australia and there’s so much debate about which machines are the best.
While many have reservations about whether the national obsession with the machines is such a good thing, they make a strong economic case. It’s been estimated that each year they generate £8.3 billion in revenue for the country and pay $5.5 billion into the nation’s coffers in the form of taxes.
This information, from the Research by the Centre for International Economics consultancy, suggested that much of the money goes to directly fund many elements of the country’s infrastructure including roads, schools and hospitals. It’s also thought to create employment for tens of thousands of people while exports of the machines themselves generates around $284 million a year.
Looking at the wider world
However, pokies are also largely responsible for generating another, less popular, kind of record: that each year Australians lose more on gambling than any other nation in the world. In 2014 this amounted to US$1,100 per person, over double the amount in the UK and Canada – two other countries with a long-standing love affair with gambling. The stats about players are equally surprising with up to 30% of the population playing on the pokies at least once a year and with 4% playing weekly.
There is much debate about whether this devotion to gambling is a good or bad thing. Industry bodies play down the fact that some people may be losing up to $8,000 a year on the machines, and in Tasmania this has become a hot political issue.
But it’s worth remember that Australia is not the only country in the world where gambling is completely open and legal. Over in the UK, for example, gambling is flourishing. While operators are subject to strict regulations, they contribute hugely to the UK economy – around £15 billion in the most recent tax year – funding vital public services as well as problem gambling. What’s more, over 100,000 people are working in the industry.
Pokies are known as slots in the UK, and while they aren’t as popular as they are in Australia, they still have plenty of fans. One of the key differences comes in the way pokies/slots are enjoyed in the two countries. While pokies are traditionally played by Australians in pubs, hotels and clubs; citizens of the UK prefer to play online slot games, perhaps suggesting cultural differences. It appears pokies are viewed as a pastime in Australia, on the other hand, online slots are a form of entertainment in the UK.
Is the future online?
It could well be that if Australia were to loosen its laws on online gambling then a similar turnaround could take place. Currently all forms of online gambling are expressly forbidden and have been ever since the passing of the Interactive Gambling Act back in 2001. But the Act really focuses on the provision of online gambling by operators based both within Australia and beyond.
Nowhere does it state that players can be prosecuted for using the sites, but a combination of confusion and fear about doing so may well inhibit many from taking part. It also without doubt drives online gambling underground – putting players at risk and profits firmly in the hands of criminal enterprises.
Of course, if online gambling were legalised in Australia, there would likely be inevitable opposition from all the interested parties who own or lease out the pokies themselves, but as we’ve seen, in the UK the two do seem to co-exist quite happily.
So it’s going to be interesting to see over the next few years how the situation may develop. It certainly seems like greater restrictions may be on the way as in 2017 an amendment was passed to the Interactive Gambling Bill tightening up the law still further.
But however draconian the law may become, there’s one thing that’s for sure: it’s very unlikely that it’s going to break off the Australian people’s long-running love affair with the pokie.