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Could Pokies Come to Queensland’s Aboriginal Communities?

Thu, Nov 8, 3:31am by Ed Scimia

This year, it is expected that the decade-old restriction on alcohol sales in Queensland’s Aboriginal communities will be reviewed. The ban has always been a contentious one, as while some have seen it as an important step to curb violence in indigenous communities, others have described these policies as overly paternalistic, or even racist.

While the argument over the future of alcohol in these communities is both important and heated, it is not the only type of vice that might receive a review by the Newman Government in the coming months. Another debate is one that should be of great interest to readers here at Australian Gambling: whether the current policies in Aboriginal communities should be changed to allow for gambling on pokies as well.

According to a story in the Daily Telegraph, that’s exactly the question that Mayor Errol Neal wants to ask. Neal is the mayor of Yarrabah, the largest Aboriginal community in Queensland, home to some 4,500 residents. While Neal is in favour of allowing the community to open a licensed social club and bistro, he’d also like to have the government look at another idea: licensed gambling.

Like alcohol, it is part of a huge black market in most indigenous communities, and we need to bring it out into the open,” Neal told the newspaper. “We could put one-arm bandit pokie machines in a social club and then our people could gamble in their home town without having to go outside the community.”

Understanding the Debate

It is certainly true that Aboriginal communities like Yarrabah face social problems that are unlike those seen in most Australian towns and cities. Violence, homelessness, and other social ills are severe problems in many such communities. According to some, these problems are often caused – or exasperated – by gambling and alcohol abuse.

But others say that these bans are less than effective. Even if alcohol and pokies aren’t available in an Aboriginal community, residents there can easily travel to other locations to get a drink or make bets. Essentially, while the social ills are still present from those who have gambling or drinking problem, none of the money from these industries stays in the communities – and those who only partake in such things casually can’t enjoy them at all. Furthermore, the fact that these restrictions are specifically in place for Aboriginal communities doesn’t sit well with many Australians, Aboriginal or otherwise.

A Suggested Compromise

Truth be told, few would be in favour of a sudden and complete reintroduction of gambling and alcohol into communities where they have been controlled or banned entirely for a decade or more. However, that’s not what Mayor Neal or other advocates for a loosening of such restrictions are asking for.

Nobody wants to go back to the days of the beer-barn,” he said, “but we should have it as a right, not this race-based legislation. Why should we be persecuted for what anyone else can do in any other community in Australia?

Instead, Neal has proposed that his council could run a feasibility study to see if opening a social club could work for Yarrabah. This would include a community survey to see if there was support for such an operation. Ultimately, his plan would be to open a “semi-controlled” venue that sold food and light beer – one that would only be opened for limited hours.

It’s easy to see how such a trial could be attempted when it comes to gambling as well. The same club that Neal has proposed could also be licensed to operate a small amount of pokies – perhaps using the $1 betting limits that have been a key issue in the debate over poker machine reform.

In both cases, a semi-controlled environment could be the perfect way to test whether ending the current restrictions on Aboriginal communities would be a positive change. It would provide some solid evidence as to what the ramifications of such a change would be, and might even help local and state governments craft better policies that reflect the needs of individual communities, rather than a “one size fits all” approach than affects only Aboriginal communities.


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