Gillard Gambles on Nanny State

Gaming machines (or pokies) tend to polarise public opinion between those who regard them as a blight on society and those who view them as a legitimate form of entertainment.

There is no doubt that they make a significant contribution to state revenue with nearly $300 million in taxes collected annually from gaming machines in South Australia alone. Add the flow-on benefits through increased employment in pubs and clubs, the community support that profitable hospitality businesses provide and the capital improvements of many businesses, and it is clear that pokies have provided a lifeline for a previously struggling industry.

As a publican when pokies were introduced, I recall noting that outside of government expenditure, the only growth sector in the South Australian economy was the hotel industry. Collectively hundreds of millions of dollars were invested in improving facilities, enhancing dining room offerings and providing employment opportunities.

The pubs and clubs have continued to build on this initial investment over the past 16 years.

However, there are, of course, negative consequences to gaming machines. A small proportion of players are addicted to gambling and are unable to adequately control their participation. Such addiction often has serious impacts on the individual, their family and comes at a cost to our entire community.

But many things in life have serious negative impacts on individuals. Smoking, fast food and alcohol consumption all have potentially devastating consequences. We all know that smoking can result in premature death, too much fast food contributes to obesity and diabetes, while excessive alcohol consumption comes at a huge social cost to our community.

So why then is the Federal Government suggesting that we will all need a ‘licence’ in order to slip a few dollars into a gaming machine?

The vast majority of players – just like the vast majority of fast food consumers and alcohol drinkers – manage their consumption of this legal product in an appropriate manner. Yet the government wants to implement a system whereby every player will have to register and set a limit on their losses before being able to play.

This strikes me as a step too far in the nanny state. Surely we are all able to determine on what legal goods and services we spend our own hard-earned money without needing the approval of the government.

Whatever next? A tracking card or licence that only allows so many burgers to be bought in a week, or a limit on the quantity of alcohol we may purchase? While these examples may seem ridiculous, the principle applied is exactly the same as what the government is proposing with their gaming machine player’s licence.

Now, for those players who have been identified as having a gambling problem, a voluntary pre-commitment system would seem a sensible option but a compulsory system that applies to everyone is a bridge too far.

The impact on clubs and pubs of a mandatory system would be immediate, with job losses and possible closure of venues seemingly inevitable. This would also impact on the thousands of community and sporting organisations who receive ongoing support from the pubs and clubs industry.

There would also be a large change in the tax revenue received by state governments – a shortfall that would have to be absorbed by every other citizen through paying higher fees and charges.
Notwithstanding these arguments, there is another compelling reason to reject the Gillard push.

Gaming machine legislation is a state matter and the quest by the Commonwealth to take control of this initiative would see even more power concentrated in Canberra.

I have always held the view that one of our nation’s strengths has been our federalist system where the division of power is a prudent restraint on government. Gillard’s proposal is just another step in reducing the role of state governments while strengthening the Commonwealth.

While many of us may be unhappy with the performance of our state governments, one can scarcely place any more faith in our Federal Government to manage local issues, given their disastrous performance thus far.

While it may be unfashionable to defend the so-called ‘industries of sin’, the principle attached to doing so is far more important.

Firstly, if we continue to implement legislation based around the lowest common denominator, there will never be a limit to the rise of the nanny state.

If, as taxpayers, we are prepared to accept the need for government permission to spend our hard-earned money as we see fit on legal goods and services, we give up one of the greatest freedoms our ancestors fought for.

In allowing the Commonwealth to do so, we also further break down the concept of federation that has always provided that government closer to the people will be better for the people.

Finally, whilst there will always be individuals who will have difficulty controlling their personal impulses and desires, most of us act responsibly and prudently in the conduct of our own affairs and that of our families.

That is something that we as a society should never lose sight of. Rather than encouraging more government interference in our lives, we’d be better off encouraging greater self-government and responsibility for individual actions.

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