The campaign is on for restriction of poker machines. Gary Morgan yesterday released poll results showing that a majority want local councils to be able to prohibit pokies
on their territory. Stephen Mayne in Crikey has repeatedly endorsed the
argument that this will help problem gamblers in Victoria. But it just
gives some of us a sense of deja vu.

We’ve been here before: 15
years ago, giving local councils power to stamp out a perceived social
evil was one of the Victorian Opposition’s big catchcries. Then it was
prostitution: unwilling to go all the way back to prohibition, the
Liberal Party proposed to allow local councils to refuse applications
for new brothels, effectively limiting the industry to existing licence
holders.

Critics at the time pointed out that this too would be
just repeating a failed policy. Tougher controls on liquor licensing in
the mid-20th century had given Melbourne an unnatural pattern of
alcohol outlets; the older suburbs were well supplied, but in more
recently settled areas there were only a handful of venues, which
became magnets for the new outer suburbs. The result was binge
drinking, drink driving, violence and the rest.

Ultimately,
sanity prevailed. The liquor laws were reformed in the 1980s and
further in the 1990s, and the Kennett government when elected realised
that its prostitution policy was unworkable. But the crusade against
poker machines shows that the lesson has not been learned in all
quarters.

Yes, there are problem gamblers who need help. Yes,
government dependence on gaming revenue is unhealthy. But fundamentally,
gambling is a matter of personal choice. We do not normally think that
local democracy should extend to prohibitions on otherwise lawful
activities. If they can ban pokie venues and brothels, why not mosques
or synagogues?

The anti-poker machine lobby seems to place
little value on personal freedom. In pursuing its social goals, it
gives the preferences of the non-problem gamblers no real weight. But
not only is such puritanism bad in principle, history also teaches us that
it is usually counter-productive.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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