Residents in one of Melbourne’s most disadvantaged local council areas are pumping almost half a million dollars a day through the pokies.
The City of Brimbank took the unenviable historic daily record in electronic gaming machine losses in Victoria in February.
John* who gambled in Brimbank for more than two decades — until fighting his addiction in 2014 — believes he lost more $1 million to the pokies.
He lost his house, two marriages and access to his children.
“I pretty much lost my sanity. I was depressed. I suffered anxiety, I suffered panic attacks. I tried to take my life on three occasions,” he said.
Post-COVID lockdown losses have increased
The local council has recorded the largest losses in the state for the past eleven years, but those numbers have increased significantly since the end of the stage four lockdown in Victoria.
In the months after the reopening of gaming venues in the state, Brimbank recorded losses of $14.7 million in December 2020 and $13.8 million in January 2021.
They were the two highest loss months ever in Brimbank.
And in February, they recorded the state’s highest ever daily losses of up to $482,168.
Brimbank mayor, Ranka Rasic, said over the last decade the area had lost more than $1.4 billion.
Most of that money has come from people who have moderate to severe problems with gambling.
“It’s not a coincidence that the areas with the highest level of pokie machine losses are also some of the more disadvantaged,” Ms Rasic said.
Charles Livingstone, an associate professor in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, said there had been significant increases in poker machine expenditure since the lockdown ended, particularly in March.
“If you compare expenditure with March 2019, which is the last time we had a normal March, if you look, then across Victoria’s expenditure, (it) is up around 8 per cent,” Dr Livingstone said.
Dr Livingstone said stressful conditions, uncertain employment and fears about the future were connected to spending more on pokie machines as people sought relief from those circumstances.
“But it’s considerably above other comparable areas such as Hume and Melton,” he said.
Dr Livingstone isn’t certain what’s caused Brimbank’s higher losses compared to other lower-socioeconomic local council areas in Victoria.
Victorian pokies have longest opening hours in country
Victorian gaming venues are open 20 hours a day — the longest permitted in Australia — the council and the Alliance for Gambling Reform believe this is a key factor in Brimbank’s pokie losses.
Rose O’Leary, Victorian campaigner at the Alliance for Gambling Reform, said historical evidence showed gambling increased during and after a crisis, whether it is a pandemic, economical, or something like a natural disaster.
John believes the number of machines and the extended opening times of venues aren’t necessary. He said they had only caused harm.
After he stopped gambling, he had to alter his route home to limit his contact to venues.
“I work about 15 minutes from home, and it did take me over an hour to get home. Because I had to avoid roads away from venues because seeing the venues was a bit of a trigger.
“They sort of become like a magnet or a subconscious thing. In the end, you don’t even realize that you’ve pulled into the car park, it just becomes so automatic.”
Ms Rasic said she had met with Victorian government Minister for Gambling, Melissa Horne, to raise her concerns over the pokie losses in Brimbank. Despite describing the meeting as “constructive” Ms Rasic believes drastic reform is the only solution.
“I think we have been forgotten,” she said.
The council is pushing for reform, including a reduction of operating hours, maximum $1 bets and daily $200 maximum EFTPOS limits, which it believes will help stop the large losses.
What has the Victoria government put in place to tackle gambling harm?
- Limiting EFTPOS cash withdrawals to $500 per card in 24 hours
- A cap on the number of gaming machines in the state at the current level until 2042
- Prohibiting the advertising or operation of cheque cashing services in or around gaming venues
- New code for venues to better respond to gambling harm
A Victorian government spokesperson said the government was investing in new research to examine the impact of the pandemic on gambling.
The government also asserts the average real-term gaming machine loss per adult in the state has decreased by more than 40 per cent since December 2008.
Ms Rasic wants firmer reform.
John said he went to a financial counsellor in 2010 to try to figure out how much he had lost since he started gambling on the pokies 23 years ago.
“When he got to a certain amount I asked him to stop, because I couldn’t face the figure that was appearing in front of my eyes,” he said.
John “heavily gambled” a further four years after that review with the financial counsellor.
However, John hasn’t gambled now in more than six years.
He has started rediscovering things that brought him joy in his youth before gambling took over his life.
“I enjoyed riding my bike. So I went out and bought a bike. I enjoyed my pets. So what I got some budgies and some love birds, I got a dog, then I got another dog,” he said.
“I have no depression, I have no anxiety, so life is in a good place.”
Name has been changed for privacy reasons.