South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon has again spoken out against poker machines today. In an article for The Punch, he also criticised the Coalition for trying to use the issue as a “wedge” to drive apart the Labor Government and independent Andrew Wilkie.

Labor needs Wilkie’s support to maintain power, but that support is conditional on Labor cracking down on pokies and protecting problem gamblers. Wilkie is pushing for poker reforms such as smart cards with pre-commitment limits and limiting poker machine payouts. While the Coalition has criticised some of the proposed reforms as ineffective, Xenophon has accused them of ignoring the fact that “hundreds of thousands of Australians have their lives ruined through lack of reform”.

Indeed, a significant number of Australians’ lives are affected by poker machine addiction. Thousands of people spend millions of dollars chasing a payout which may never come, all too often at the expense of providing for their families. According to a Productivity Commission report, about 4 per cent of the population, or 600,000 people, are “regular” poker machine users, playing at least once a week. About 15 per cent of regular users are “problem gamblers”, and these gamblers’ share of total spending on pokies amounts to 40 per cent.

As further evidence that the pokies prey on the vulnerable, it has recently been suggested that survivors of Queensland’s natural disasters are behind a surge in that state’s poker machine revenue.

Despite the obvious harm poker machines cause, there has been a massive campaign opposing any reform. The Australian Christian Lobby has recently made a statement criticising the self-interest of Clubs Australia and the Australian Hotels Association, who together have spent millions of dollars opposing the reforms.

In today’s Courier Mail, columnist Jane Fynes-Clinton praised Labor and Wilkie’s proposed measures as “a mighty start” but said they are in need of a “serious working over”, saying they “wait for the problem to occur and park an ambulance at the base of the cliff”.

But it is a start. As Xenophon says, nobody claims that these reforms will immediately conquer poker addiction, but it is "about reducing the harm. This is about making a dangerous product safer". For this reason ACL supports the introduction of mandatory pre-commitment limits as one method of addressing serious problem gambling.