Nick Xenophon sticks it to the pokies moguls

August 25, 2008

Here is the text of a cracking speech that No Pokies senator Nick Xenophon delivered to a pokies industry conference on Sunday, August 24, 2008, generating this strong story in The Australian.

When I was first invited to speak at this conference, the organisers told me they saw it as a chance for members of your industry to get to know the new "No Pokies" Senator.

They pitched it as a meet and greet, and assured me that by the end of it I wouldn't end up as dead meat.

I hope they're right.

So who am I?

Who is this scruffy-looking upstart from South Australia vowing to do everything in his power to shut down your industry?

Well, let's start with what I'm not.

I am not a zealot.

I am not some religious type who sees the world in terms of black and white, good and evil.

I am not some supernanny of the nanny state who's here to tell the poker machine barons to sit on "the naughty chair".

Many of you will be shocked to learn I believe strongly in freedom of choice, and I am opposed to unreasonable government intervention into our lives.

In a moment I will tell you how that fits with my stance on pokies.

You also need to know that I am not some politician who looked for the next populist issue, and decided poker machines would be my way to gain public support.

In fact, when I first ran for the South Australian Parliament eleven years ago, I ran to lose.

Unlike so many of your patrons, I knew the odds...and the odds of winning, were against me.

But I decided to run as a 'no pokies' independent to make a point.

That point was that your product is an unsafe product.

And I was tired of seeing your unsafe product causing untold harm.

Before politics I was working as a lawyer. It sickened me to see people losing their personal injury payouts to the poker machines that seemed to take over every pub in my state in the mid-1990s.

The final straw was when a client of mine who was intellectually impaired came to me in tears, hurt and confused because his so-called "friends" who ran the local pub didn't want to be his friends any more.

For months they plied him with free drinks, even to the point where they had to push the machine's buttons for him. Their ‘friendship' also included giving credit so he could keep chasing his losses.

They'd even picked him up from his small unit to take him to their venue...all so he could gamble away everything he had.

Almost $30,000 later, his money was gone and so were his "friends".

I know that one dodgy pub does not make an unsafe industry, but an unsafe product does.

So I ran.

And against the odds, even though I received less than 3 per cent of the vote, thanks to improbable preferencing from both sides of politics, I was elected to the upper house of the South Australian parliament. Once there, I worked hard to make things as hard as I could for your industry.

In 2006, I was re-elected.

This time the electorate knew who I was and what I stood for.

And this time, I received over 20% of the state-wide vote.

During my time in the South Australian upper house I helped reduce the number of poker machines in South Australia by more than 2,000, which was about 15 per cent.

People said this was an achievement.

But in my heart, I knew I needed to achieve much more.

Because, you see, the state governments of this country are also addicted to poker machines. Each year they rake in nearly $4 billion in taxes.

They don't want to see this problem fixed.

So they pluck the odd feather from the golden goose.

But they are never going to willingly kill it.

I knew I had to try something else and then on September 11th 2007 I read the then opposition leader Kevin Rudd's statements on poker machines. He said, and I quote: “I hate poker machines and I know something of their impact on families.”

What Kevin Rudd said helped me decide to run for federal parliament.

The High Court decision on Workchoices - a policy incidentally I was opposed to - had given the then federal government unprecedented powers.

I believed if I could get to Canberra I could achieve what state governments never would... an end to the misery your industry causes.

Your machines are inherently unsafe.

When other products have been found to cause significant harm to a significant number of users they have been banned.

In 1999, the Productivity Commission found that almost 1 in 20 poker machine users become problem gamblers.

Could you imagine a restaurant staying in business if even 1 in 200 diners became ill?

Poker machines make half their profits from people who are addicted.

People with an addiction do not exercise free choice.

Free choice is when you can rationally weigh up the costs and the benefits of your actions, and then you choose.

The people who make your industry so wealthy can't do this.

They are addicted.

They are so addicted to your product that they will jeopardise their own financial well-being and the well-being of their families.

They are so addicted to your product that they will steal from their partners, their bosses, and their children, just to churn money through your machines into the coffers of State Treasuries and your bank accounts.

And I know from families that I have sat down and spoken to, that the most tragic manifestation of their despair can lead to seeing suicide as the only way to break free from their addiction.

You call it 'entertainment' or 'gaming'.

I call it obscene.

For a long time I have quoted figures, studies and reports that show the destruction that your industry wreaks on individuals and in communities across this country.

Figures like, up to 250,000 Australians hooked on the pokies, each affecting on average seven others.

And even the industry's own figures, which we were never meant to see, in Tattersall's own words “we derive enormous value, 57% of revenue from a very small group of customers, namely the 15% who lose $100 plus per visit.”

But recently I've realised, my relying on figures has played into the industry's hands.

I quote an expert, and then your industry drags out some other expert to try and muddy the waters.

You do this because you don't actually want to win the argument.

You know you can't.

Ultimately you know your position is untenable.

So instead you try to keep the debate going for as long as you can. Then you can suck every last dollar from those addicted, until finally common sense prevails and you are shut down for good.

And I mean "for good" in every sense.

I hope the federal government joins me in my efforts.

I want to work with the PM to achieve his goal to wind back your influence and to tackle the damage caused to families.

But the PM must lead by example.

So I say to Prime Minister Rudd, "Kevin, if you really hate poker machine's, let's work together. And let's start by taking the poker machines out of the Labor Club in Canberra."

After all, how can you be opposed to something your own party profits from?

I understand that the PM has a really tough job ahead of him. He's said the right thing, and I believe he is absolutely sincere.

So many in the community are with him, and even more will join him, if he follows those fine words with decisive action.

But of course there is a long history of pokies funding his party.

If there is one person who has the moral authority and suasion to break the link between pokies and Labor, it is the PM.

He should intervene because poker machines are about addiction.

First there are the clients who are slaves to addiction, sitting in darkened rooms mesmerised by the lights and sounds and the promise of some kind of escape.

But this promise of escape, so often becomes a descent into a personal hell.

Then there are the State governments who are so disgracefully addicted to poker machine taxes.

It is the most regressive form of taxation around, because as you all should know, most of the people losing money... simply can't afford to do so.

Often, it's not even their money.

I also believe there is one more group of poker machine addicts.

A group rarely talked about.

And that you.

The manufacturers, the owners, the operators, of the machines.

You are smart business people.

How can you pretend for a moment that you don't know the damage your product does?

And how can you pretend for a moment that a poker machine addict's money is better spent making you rich, than feeding their children.

The charade is over.

I am calling you on it.

I am not willing to accept that you don't see the harm that you do.

I honestly believe that you know the harm you do... yet you choose to do it anyway.

And that may be the saddest part of this sad, sad, situation!

* Email Nick Xenophon at or his chief of staff Rohan Wenn on