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I lost $500,000 living in Fairfield, NSW’s ground zero for predatory gambling

Having spent more than 40 years living in the Fairfield area and lost more than $500,000 gambling, it was gratifying to finally see Fairfield City Council stand up and be counted last week on the enormous damage caused by poker machines.

I’m now 77 and have been off gambling for 17 years but still require monthly counselling to keep me safe.

The Fairfield area is ground zero of the predatory gambling industry in NSW and I feel much safer having moved away to the South Coast in the 1980s.

Looking back on my time in Fairfield it is easy to understand how the pokies became so embedded in NSW society.

The problems start with the registered clubs and the way they control so much of the great game of rugby league, effectively on behalf of the pokies industry.

Over the years I played league for Mounties, Smithfield and the Liverpool Colts – all of which were funded by pokies. They normalised poker machine gambling into everyday life.

Sure, I also used to punt on the races and even worked as a greyhounds judge for a while, but it was the pokies that really cleaned me out, especially after the Carr government introduced them into hotels in 1997. A lot of my old rugby league mates have also been cleaned out by the pokies, leaving us to rely on federal government support to see out our twilight years.

There are 38 pokies venues in Fairfield and I lost money at many of them, including the Guildford Leagues Club, the Canley Heights RSL Sports Club, the Cabramatta Leagues Club and, of course, Mounties in Mount Pritchard which drains almost $100 million a year from the Fairfield community.

The Mounties directors proudly declared in the 2015-16 annual report that they are “currently ranked No.1 in NSW for gaming machine profit”. But at what cost to the community?

Back in the day of the coin-operated one-armed bandits, you could only lose so much in a single session, but the modern pokie is far more addictive.

In fact, Australian-style pokies are the most dangerous in the world and NSW is the worst in Australia with $10 maximum bets. The Productivity Commission recommended $1 maximum bets in 1999, Victoria has moved to $5 bets, but NSW remains immovable because of political capture of the Coalition and Labor parties. We still haven’t even banned ATMs at venues, like the rest of Australia.

The Herald was right to use the word “political blackmail” in Thursday’s editorial when describing how ClubsNSW influences our state politicians. It has donated millions to the Liberal and Labor parties, both of which have failed to protect the community.

The Liberals are locked up by a so-called Memorandum of Understanding with ClubsNSW which runs until 2019 and totally favours the pokies industry and Labor runs its own pokies venue at the Randwick Labor Club.

The 1400 registered clubs in NSW have become so rich from the pokies that they are now an economic force in their own right and can deploy their familiar arguments about community grants and jobs. I used to work behind the bar at the Liverpool Bowling Club and the Marconi Club; I was just a foot soldier for the gambling industry inflicting damage on members and visitors to these clubs.

Len Ainsworth and his family have built more of the NSW pokies than anyone through their companies Aristocrat Leisure and Ainsworth Gaming Technology. It’s all very well for them to be worth more than $3 billion, but what about the people they harm along the way? If you’re worried about rising inequality in Australia, just compare Len Ainsworth and me.

It is a shame registered clubs have become so entangled in everyday community life when an overwhelming majority of their revenue comes from a dangerous addictive product. In the case of Mounties Group, it raked in $127 million in revenue in 2015-16, but $107 million of this was from the pokies at seven different sites across NSW.

The state government should introduce a rule that says no pokies venue can derive more than 50 per cent of their revenue from pokies. That would force a few changes.

Ralph Bristow is member of the NSW Gambling Impact Society which assists people harmed by gambling. For further information: http://gisnsw.org.au/

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