Western Sydney the big loser in gambling

October 28, 2015

Gambling is in the news here in Sydney, and it looks like Western Sydney residents are the biggest losers.

Last year, Francis Markham (ANU) and Martin Young (Southern Cross University) wrote in The Conversation:

The growth of “Big Gambling” in Australia is an ongoing class project. It is one that has transferred, with industrial efficiency, billions of dollars from the pay packets of the working classes to the bank accounts of a super-rich elite.

Setting aside the inflammatory “class warfare” language, is it true?

Guess what, we in Australia lose more money from gambling, per person, than any other country in the world, some $20 billion, the majority of that from “poker” machines (Americans call them “slot machines”).

When I was the CEO of the Rural Health Education Foundation some years ago, my board of directors had an interesting response when we staff (naively) suggested approaching a gaming foundation for money. No, they said firmly, the majority of them rural General Practitioners. Gambling is one of the worst contributors of mental health problems and family breakdown in rural and remote Australia. Not something you would think that your family doctor spends a lot of time thinking about. But it’s true, they do. So gaming money joined tobacco and alcohol on our list of untouchable sponsorship.

Earlier this week, the issue rose again, with an article in The Sydney Morning Herald by James Robertson and Jacob Saulwick on October 26, 2015, entitled “Poker machine profits come from Sydney’s poorest suburbs”.  The key points:

  • Four of the five suburbs registering the fastest-growing and largest losses are ranked Sydney’s top-five most disadvantaged areas. More than one-third of the recent $7 billion gambling increase comes from these areas.
  • The “top five” Sydney suburbs for gambling: Fairfield (Sydney’s most disadvantaged suburb), Canterbury and Bankstown (the second and fourth most disadvantaged areas), Holroyd (seventh) and Auburn (fourth).

This accords with what Markham and Young wrote back in early 2014:

In Fairfield … each adult resident lost an average of $2340 on the pokies in 2010-11. Across the harbour in Ku-ring-gai and Willoughby, whose residents are among the richest 6% in Australia, poker machine losses were just $270 per adult.

A comment by a former gaming executive in the Herald article: “In the eastern suburbs you’ll get larger individual bets but they’ll lose less overall [because] they don’t have the time.”

As much as we can talk about maintaining “social safety nets”, here’s the issue: it’s some of the poorest Australians who are losing the most money on gambling.