Australia Letter: Poker machines and political donations leave reform a risky roll of the dice

Gambling industry wields huge power over the vulnerable and premier Chris Minns will struggle to achieve change

It is difficult to escape the ubiquitous poker machine in Australia. Nicknamed “pokies”, they are found in city pubs, rural community clubs and sprawling casinos. They are a visual symbol of the country’s stark gambling problem. In a 2021 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Australians lost approximately $25 billion on legal forms of gambling, representing the largest per capita losses in the world.

New South Wales has by far the largest amounts of poker machines in the country, with 86,640 machines in its pubs and clubs, giving it almost half of Australia’s stock. The machines’ operators have been significant donors to both of Australia’s political parties, Labor and the Liberals, ensuring that gambling has a strong voice in the corridors of parliament. It is hard for any party to wean itself off the vast money that is provided by the gambling industry, not only through donations, but via taxes.

New South Wales is now under Labor control for the first time in 12 years, but it is notable that recently ousted premier Dominic Perrottet from the conservative Liberal party spoke out against gambling, and had planned to enact one of Australia’s biggest gambling reforms if re-elected. His reform planned to utilise cashless cards for gamblers, who would need to impose their own daily loss limit, which could be only be changed after seven days. He wanted to make cashless cards law by 2028, in a positive move to curb financial losses from the most vulnerable sections of society.

Labor is in charge and the pressure is now on the new premier, Chris Minns, to outline his own plans to take on the gambling industry. Perrottet showed considerable bravery to take on an extremely powerful gambling lobby that often acts as a kingmaker in Australian politics by mobilising large numbers of voters against any politician that speaks out. Just ask former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, who tried to drive gambling reform in 2012 but abandoned it after significant pressure from lobbyists. So far, Minns has been coy about committing to concrete proposals to curb gambling reform, perhaps remembering the fate of his former Labor colleague Gillard.


If you look at a map of New South Wales and its worst gambling losses per capita, you see the western Sydney suburb of Fairfield stands out in first place. Fairfield is ethnically diverse and one of the state’s most economically deprived areas. Similarly to most of the world, gambling is thriving in parts of Australia where people are struggling most to survive each week.

In another economically deprived western Sydney suburb, Rooty Hill, it is hard to miss the sprawling and sparkling gambling complex of West HQ. Filled with hundreds of poker machines, it is a gambling mecca in the heart of dreary suburbia. West HQ also provides the community with an affordable and state-of-the-art sports and theatre complex. These amenities were completely built on the back of gambling income, giving the lobbyists one of their strongest and most used arguments. Their industry provides local employment and recreational facilities for communities in deprived or neglected areas.

It is a powerful tactic that is used throughout Australia, and arguably with the most effectiveness in rural areas that need commercial support to maintain and retain community recreation facilities. The returned serviceman league clubs, or RSLs, are found throughout Australia. They were originally set up as a place of recreation for returned soldiers, but now operate largely as community hubs. There are vast screens to watch sports, lines of poker machines and packed bistros. These clubs are often the first to put their hands into their pockets to supply kits for the local junior sports teams. It costs them practically nothing, but it gets them Australia’s most powerful allies on their side, the voters.

When Gillard tried to push through her gambling reform federally in 2012, hundreds protested outside Parliament House, with children wearing their local sports club’s jersey. The message was clear and evocative, taking away the income from poker machines was going to damage the fabric of Australian society, ripping investment from local sports teams, and depriving children of the beloved Australian idea of “the fair go”.

Minns has a prized opportunity to move New South Wales away from its reliance on gambling and help reform an industry that has influenced Australian politics at every level, for far too many years. The question is whether he will roll the dice on his own political future to achieve it.