How much are we blowing on Hunter pokies?

Editorial: Battling one-armed bandits

HUNTER residents splurged a staggering $4billion on a punt on the pokies in a year, with more than half-a-million dollars poured into every machine in Newcastle alone.

It equates to about $11million a day going into the pokies across the region.

The troubling tally is more than the government netted for the lease of the Port of Newcastle and the sale of the Upper Hunter’s power stations combined, and the equivalent of nearly 10 Newcastle light-rail projects.

Newcastle and Lake Macquarie recorded among the largest turnovers in the state for local government areas, with more than $1billion put through their machines in 2013-14, figures show.

Newcastle also had the highest turnover for each  machine in the region, with $528,356 put into each. But pokies in Maitland, a less popular nightspot, also turned over big dollars – more than $490,000  a  machine.

Those who help the region’s problem gamblers say it is too early to tell whether recent government changes to poker machine rules will exacerbate the gambling addiction, but industry critics have labelled the measures dangerous.

The changes, which came into effect on July 3, include an increase in the amount of money pokie players can store in a smartcard, from $200 to $5000, and a boost to the amount of winnings that can be paid out in cash.

Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority figures show Newcastle’s 2178 club pokie machines and 922 hotel machines racked up a combined turnover of $1.6billion in 2013-14.

That was about the 10th highest in the state, and the second-largest turnover for a council area outside  Sydney, behind Wollongong’s $1.8-billion spend.

Fairfield in Sydney’s west racked up a whopping $6-billion turnover.

Lake Macquarie trailed on $1.02billion. Gloucester, with 71 machines, gambled the least in the region,  putting $14million into its 71 machines.

In the same year, the number of machine entitlements in the region grew.

The authority gave approval to Greta Workers Sports and Recreation Club to operate 50, an increase of eight, and to the Muswellbrook RSl Sub-branch Club to install another 12, for a total of 92 machines.

Conditions included that the clubs pay tens of thousands of dollars to community organisations.

Wesley Mission Newcastle gambling counsellor Martina Winch said that, while there had been an increase in problem gambling among young people with the advent of online gambling and smartphone apps, poker machines remained the main source of harm.

‘‘The Hunter Region has a very high rate of problem gamblers due to the amount of gaming machines in the area,’’ she said.

‘‘For every problem gambler there are seven people immediately affected – the domino effect means that more machines result in more personal suffering.’’

The organisation helps clients devastated by the loss of their job or home or family breakdown, but only 20 per cent of problem gamblers seek counselling. About 63per cent of those who seek its support are men.

Clubs NSW Newcastle and Hunter representative Jon Chin said the turnover did not indicate how much money clubs were pocketing in profit, which would be dwindling.

Modern machines encouraged high turnover and the continuation of play.

‘‘While you may have a good turnover, once upon a time you’d have a good retention rate and now it’s baseline, ’’ he said.

Many smaller clubs were struggling, he said. 

That may in part be due to young people’s preference for online gambling and ‘‘we’ve got no idea how much money is going through online’’.

He said the government’s changes to smartcard thresholds would improve personal security of players.

‘‘I can’t imagine anyone with a sense of security would want to carry $3000, $4000, $5000 in their pocket,’’ he said.

However, the government also increased the threshold for paying machine prizes by cheque or electronic funds transfer from $2000 to $5000, in line with a memorandum of understanding it signed with Clubs NSW last year.

A spokesman for Deputy Premier Troy Grant said the suite of changes  removed ‘‘unnecessary red tape, improves harm-minimisation measures, provides regulatory consistency and repeals redundant provisions’’.

He said a player  was  not bound to spend the $5000 on their smartcard in a single session, as the unspent balance could be gambled at later sessions over an extended period of time.

But Greens MP John Kaye said the Baird government was making it easier for clubs to profit off problem and 

at-risk gamblers, who would put the money straight into machines, thanks to the risky measures.

Wesley Mission said it was too soon to tell what effect the changes would have.