Thursday, August 2, 2012
By Jonathan Green
That people have lost faith in the political class and its doings is one of the truisms of our time.
Have our expectations been unreasonable? Probably not.
Presumably most of us ask little more of government than that it represent and pursue our best interests, individually and collectively.
That sounds tidily self-evident, anything but unreasonable. And then you look around at the various shards of shattered public policy that litter the ground about us and you wonder.
Too often politics can pursue the narrower interests of its practitioners rather than the broader concerns of the people that it nominally serves. Disappointing, and yet we get that. It’s just self interest after all.
It’s not as if the political class was actively pernicious. Malignant. Predatory. Is it?The Age did a pretty good data crunch of numbers from the ABS yesterday, looking at poker machine use across Victoria. It found that overwhelmingly, by weight of numbers and presumably misery, the greatest losses to the pokies were felt by the poorest people in the state.Adults in Greater Dandenong, in Melbourne’s south-east, lost more on the machines per person than those in any other local government area in Victoria during the 2010-11 financial year. For every adult who lives in the area, $1,110 was lost on poker machines. While this figure may include losses of people who live outside the area, it stands starkly against the local average income of $426 a week.
There are 944 poker machines in greater Dandenong at 15 venues. Applications have been lodged for more. Access is easy, with 8.9 machines per 1,000 people. Contrast this with leafy Boroondara, a middle-class nest of suburbs in Melbourne’s inner east. Here:… the median individual income per week was $836 and the amount lost to pokies per adult was the lowest of any Melbourne municipality – $153 in 2010-11, or almost 20 per cent of weekly income. Boroondara, which encompasses the suburbs of Balwyn, Kew and Ashburton, has just 1.6 machines per 1,000 adults, or one machine for every 645 adults.
So there we have it, poker machine numbers and losses, like obesity, violent crime and long-term unemployment are a function of socio-economics. Which may be the way in which our system of markets and opportunity gravitates: to take most from those least equipped to resist. One might almost imagine a prophylactic role for government here … if one assumed benevolent intent of governments.
But no, our governments, state and federal, of all complexions, merely regulate the flow of the pokies, and shy away from any action or law which might obstruct the access of this industry to its markets.
Imagine, at some point, the idea of the poker machine must surely have been pitched to the relevant authority…Minister, this is what we have in mind. We have developed a device the entices people to gamble small but quickly snowballing amounts against impossible odds, machines weighted mechanically to favour the proprietor in preposterous proportions. Machines will be operated in their thousands by some of the country’s largest corporate interests, sub-let to community organisations and local entertainment hubs. The machines will be physically and psychologically enticing. We will commit vast resources to ensuring that they are irresistible. We will locate them primarily among the disadvantaged, people with few recreational options, whose lives are marked quite often by a sense of either purposelessness or quiet desperation and ennui. They will extract vast sums from these communities. They will be addictive. What’s in it for you minister? Well revenue. We estimate that by 2012 some 10 per cent of state revenues will be derived from poker machines. They will become an intrinsic, inextricable component of your fiscal structures.
And there we are, government convinced to betray the interests of its most needy citizens. They should have read the fine print.Should you resist at some point, should you attempt tighter regulation of our business to ease some of its obvious social harm, then we will campaign vigorously against you. We will argue that the revenue from these machines is in fact the lifeblood of the communities that host them. Absurd of course, since the relationship is entirely parasitic, but we will make the case stick.
Which leaves us with an industry worth billions that has defined its most lucrative markets among the poor and disadvantaged. An industry licensed by government. An industry that in turn diverts a fraction of that vast, socially regressive revenue stream to government coffers.
And we wonder why people lose faith with the people elected to represent them and guard their interests. It is perhaps just a matter of lost common decency. A betrayed hope that there might be some moral sense guiding their actions.
Jonathan Green hosts Sunday Extra on Radio National and is the former editor of The Drum.