The idea of governments regulating to stop people gambling either makes you instinctively comfortable, or uncomfortable. And most Australians appear to be comfortable. Polling consistently shows strong support for the Wilkie-Labor pokies reforms. Even in NSW, allegedly a hotbed of pokie fervour where low-income punters queue up in temples of tastelessness to feed their hard-earned into the things, support for the reforms is 55-37%, according to Essential’s early October polling on the question.

Nationally it’s 61% to 30%. Women support the reforms even more strongly more than men, young people support them more strongly than older people and Greens voters very strongly support them. But even Liberal voters support them 52-41%.

Some of us are instinctively uncomfortable. Pokies may be a voluntary tax on stupidity, but there’s more than a whiff of middle class moralising about them, and the presence of the Christians, whether via Tim Costello or the loathsome Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby, should put people on guard as to what superstition-driven cultural engineering is afoot. Not every cry of “nanny state” is hysterical. Gambling regulation has already been the basis for an attempt to stifle freedom of speech online in Australia, courtesy of the Howard Government’s Interactive Gambling Act, which banned online gambling. Like most attempts at online cultural engineering, it has failed miserably, with Australians using overseas sites for pursuits like poker.

The Productivity Commission last year suggested consideration be given to dumping the ban and letting Australians gamble on locally regulated, locally taxed sites. The Government’s only response was to “review” the Interactive Gambling Act, an exercise currently underway within the Department of Broadband.

For some of us — evidently nowhere near a majority — an individual’s decision to waste money on gambling is their own business, and no more a matter for state concern than wasting money on junk food, expensive shoes, alcohol or any other lifestyle choice of which others disapprove.

Ah, but advocates of reform say, problem gambling comes with a significant cost to the community: $4.7b a year, from 95,000 problem gamblers, according to the PC. That’s less than the tax take from gambling — $5b in 2008-09, probably more now — meaning you could argue there’s no net social cost from the industry, but it does suggest there’s grounds for lifting the tax take from the gambling sector, given in reality it’s only giving back to the community a net few hundred million dollars.

Reform advocates also argue that pokies, like smoking, are a particularly insidious form of capitalism aimed at low-income earners by large corporations and the powerful hospitality industry, which exploit addiction. That’s certainly true (in fact it’s true to varying degrees about a lot of products and services), but no one forces anyone to play the things, and as long as services are available to treat addiction and the industry is covering the social cost it generates, it’s hard to see what basis there is for further state action.

And “social cost” is a slippery slope. An awful lot of things are alleged to have a “social cost”, thereby potentially justifying state regulation. There are plenty of wingnut anti-s-x campaigners who claim evidence that pornography inflicts costs on the community. Be careful of what state interventions you support. There’s always a social engineer around the corner waiting to exploit it.

Still, as so often happens when standing up for free speech and liberalism, one finds onself in odious company. In this case, that of the clubs and pubs industry, which regularly spews forth torrents of misrepresentations about pre-commitment (including the claim that it won’t address problem gambling but will harm the industry, which is like declaring the world is both flat and round at the same time), its media acolytes like the Nine Network and News Ltd, and the dud Packer, James. Packer not merely opposes reform but wants the government to waste money encouraging more “high rollers” to visit his casinos. Given Packer’s father grew mega-rich off government largesse, Packer’s demands probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Then there’s Tony Abbott, who apparently has turned his hand to astrology, “predicting” any pre-commitment laws would be repealed under his government, as if he were above the political fray and back in his ancient guise of political journalist. One wonders if Abbott would be willing to wager some money on his prediction coming true.

But the anti-reform forces appear to have overplayed their hand. The expensive advertising campaign by the clubs industry hasn’t significantly shifted voter sentiment, and the Nine Network’s antics have hardly helped. Having failed to convince the community, the industry has had to switch to directly lobbying NSW Labor MPs instead. And Tony Abbott, in a sign that his deft political skills have come off the boil of late, went well beyond his party’s position in a way that directly offended Andrew Wilkie, wrecking months of Coalition strategic ambiguity on the subject.

The Coalition’s position isn’t helped by the fact that the PC report makes it hard to argue one is concerned about problem gambling without accepting the logic of mandatory pre-commitment. And James Packer’s intervention is unlikely to turn around the public; corporate heavyweights aren’t overly popular with voters at the moment. It might just confirm in their minds that the government is on the right track.

An issue that was once a constant source of pressure for Labor and Wilkie seems to have shifted ever so slightly in its favour.

Peter Fray

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