COVID-19 benefit payments spent on poker machines as gambling hits record high in Queensland

When the pokies were shut off in March this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, recovering addict James* thought it was going to be the break he needed to stop gambling for good.

“For the first month I was using online pokies, until I sort of hit rock bottom and realised I lost nearly everything that we had,” James said.

“When the pokies were shut down it was good because I couldn’t go to a pub, the temptation wasn’t there.”

But after four months the venues reopened, the pokies were turned on, and the temptation returned.

“I tried to stay away from them. I honestly thought I was at the point of recovery where I could go have a few beers,” he said.

A 50 dollar note being inserted into a poker machineA 50 dollar note being inserted into a poker machine
Data shows gambling has more than doubled in regional areas including Mount Isa and Goondiwindi.(ABC News)

Record spending on poker machines

Gambling on poker machines has hit a record high in Queensland since venues reopened, with data from the Office of Liquor and Gaming showing almost $293 million spent in July and similar amounts in every month since.

That’s compared to $161 million spent statewide in February before the machines were turned off.

In some regional areas gambling has doubled, including Mount Isa where $4.5 million was spent in July, compared with $2 million in February.

Cairns saw $17 million put through the machines in July, compared with $8 million in February.

Players in Goondiwindi spent $810,000, compared with $366,000 for the same periods.

The Alliance For Gambling Reform had urged the State Government to keep poker machines switched off, arguing the forced hiatus created a unique opportunity for industry, economic and social reform.

But on July 10, more than 45,000 approved electronic gaming machines (EGMs) lit up again across the state.

A man standing and looking down the camera barrelA man standing and looking down the camera barrel
Matthew Rockloff from CQ University says the poker machine shutdown has not stopped people from wanting to gamble.(ABC Wide Bay: Johanna Marie)

CQ University Professor Matthew Rockloff has studied gambling habits during COVID-19 and said the four-month break had not stopped people’s propensity to gamble.

“People haven’t taken strong advantage in this break in play,” Dr Rockloff said.

“It is disappointing to see that people are coming back to the machines in such numbers that suggests people are spending too much.”

JobSeeker and JobKeeper spent on pokies

Professor Rockloff said there was no doubt Federal Government assistance payments, such as JobSeeker and JobKeeper, contributed to the spike in gambling on the pokies.

Lifeline Darling Downs and Southwest Queensland CEO Derek Tuffield said it was common to see an increase in gambling after a natural disaster and the coronavirus pandemic was a similar situation.

“When people are under stress and if they are getting extra cash flow through stimulus payments, people do tend to go to venues and gamble as a form of relaxation,” Mr Tuffield said.

“Also they’re hoping that they’ll have that lucky win that is going to solve all their financial problems for them.

man with grey hair and glassesman with grey hair and glasses
Lifeline’s Derek Tuffield is concerned about a spike in gambling addicts needing assistance in the coming months.(ABC Southern Queensland: Lucy Robinson)

The charity organisation is now preparing for an influx of people seeking help in the coming months.

“That’s still to come. I don’t think we’ve seen the increase yet, it’s still early days,” Mr Truffield said.

“I think, for us, we might see a spike happen in the next three to six months.”

*Names have been changed for privacy.

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