NSW poker machines fire up once more

by Charlotte Lee Last Updated
Cashless gaming meets staunch opposition 

Punters have flocked back to poker machines in New South Wales, with data revealing turnover is at pre-COVID-19 levels despite social distancing restrictions in pubs and clubs halving machine number and limiting numbers in venues.

During the first week in June, New South Wales Clubs took slightly more than an average week in June last year, while hotels turnover was up by 31 per cent more than last year, data from gaming machine monitoring service MAX shows, using a sample of machines across the state.

Online betting also grew during the coronavirus lockdown as people with children reported spending more on gaming over the internet.

Clubs and pubs were shut for 10 weeks, hitting their main revenue source in an industry that earned $6.5 billion last year, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Justine Channing, a gaming industry specialist with 25 years experience, said clubs and hotels in both city and regional areas had positive results, on average.

“I suspect we’ve got a honeymoon, as people who enjoy gambling want to get out there and have a go,” Ms Channing said.

While big clubs might still be struggling due to debt and restrictions on patron numbers, medium-size clubs are doing quite well, she said.

“If you’ve got 200 people in Bankstown sports club then you’re about 2500 short of what you need,” Ms Channing said.

“[Meanwhile] a medium-size RSL club is doing as well now as they did last June.”

Clubs responded to the restrictions by removing underperforming games, she said.

Superannuation withdrawals of up to $10,000 per person allowed under the government’s early access program for people struggling with coronavirus-related financial hardship have reportedly been frittered away by punters on gambling sites and online wagering.

Alliance for Gambling Reform executive director Tony Mohr said after the global financial crisis when $1000 cheques were posted to people to stimulate the economy there was a big spike in gambling and it may be that people are using early access to superannuation in a similar way.

“When there is more disposable cash at a time of crisis people are simultaneously under more financial stress and more vulnerable to trying to escape their concerns,” Mr Mohr said.

“What is surprising is the scale of it, for them to be seeing an increase is mind-blowing.

“We’ve saved $2 billion while the pokies were turned off, which you can think of as a stimulus package in itself.”

Spending habits increase is on par

A ClubsNSW spokesman said spending habits have been “on par with pre-shutdown levels”, with only a two per cent average increase compared to the same month last year.

“Despite some activists claiming that there would be a huge spike in gambling once venues reopened, this hasn’t been borne out by the figures,” he said.

The return of club and pub gaming rooms last week coincided with a police bust, which smashed a drug supply syndicate in Wellington, in inland New South Wales, where police sized more than $450,000 cash.

Police suspect the network used poker machines to launder drug money and may have been forced to hide the cash while the pokies lay dormant.

Former ClubsNSW anti-money laundering compliance auditor Troy Soltz said because the pokies have been shut, some criminals could be stashing cash as it can’t be laundered through the machines.

“If you want to put a dent in the ice epidemic, which they’ve proven with the massive bust in Wellington last week, you need to take the legs out of the low-to-middle tier drug operators who are using the poker machines to launder money.

“I brought it to the regulator’s attention and ClubsNSW attention and they just told me to mind my own business and that’s part of the reason they’re suing me for breaches of confidentiality because of what I’ve allegedly said to Andrew Wilkie and the media.”

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