Calling Time

Dear Inner Circle,  

In one of the more beautiful and yet bizarre days as CEO and Pastor of Wayside Chapel, I recently swapped stories of loneliness with the Federal Treasurer over breakfast at a business event, rocked out to a Queen marathon being played in our Community Cafe at lunch, and spent the evening doing the Sydney street count.  

I was joined on the street count by a friendly man named Mac. As we walked together at midnight, he told me about his 20 years on the streets after running away from an abusive boy’s home, and his equally long on-and-off battle with addiction. He also mentioned he was a master map reader, only to hold the map upside down all night and so we kept getting lost, but that’s another story. 

At about two in the morning, as we were trying to quietly count the heads of the people sleeping rough, Mac told me about his one shot at getting his life together. Not long into his time on the streets he was given a share of his family’s small inheritance, just enough to get him back on his feet. In a moment that still haunts him to this day, he walked into a pokies venue and ended up blowing the whole lot. Mac was able to put dollar after dollar, $50 note after $50 note, into his machine and nobody tried to stop him. In a few hours his whole inheritance was gone. The pain was still visible as he told the story, which led to the breakdown of relationships with his wider family. It set him back, he reckons, about 10 years for the guilt and shame.  

Did Mac lose everything because he was unable to rein in his own addictive need to gamble? Or was he the victim of a system carefully calibrated to prey on his weakness, one that robbed him of his money, his hope, and led to profound despair?   

It would be a rare person to meet who is sleeping rough, who hasn’t had an experience with gambling addiction. Nearly everyone who walks through our doors has a story to tell that is based around addiction, specifically around pokies addiction. It’s not surprising when NSW has by far the highest concentration of pokies in the country, with 86,640 machines embedded in our community pubs and clubs. These machines, which are designed explicitly to lull players into a trance-like state, brought in $23 million a day last year. Think about that for a second. Behind these numbers are human beings who are suffering at greater levels than ever before, lured into these cynical venues by predatory practices like free food, complimentary drinks, and a mini-bus service.  

Some people have told me that when they’re in front of the machine, they experience a high resembling that produced by a powerful drug. Tim Costello correctly observed that, “Pokies are the crack cocaine of gambling”. People often don’t realise how deep they’re in, and don’t turn for help until it is too late. I grew up in Victoria through the nineties and saw the impact of going from no gambling, no casinos, no pokies there, to suddenly having it. My father was a family lawyer, and he eventually developed a system whereby he could tell when a young person was coming in to try and sign their parents’ title deed over, because it was happening almost once a fortnight. This lack of regulation for something we all know is so inherently dangerous wouldn’t be accepted in any other industry. If Mac was drinking recklessly that night at the pub, he would have been kicked out. Instead, we blame the individual – we say it’s their fault for not being more responsible, when really the responsibility lies with the industry. 

Pokies are a public health issue, and Wayside is at the coalface. That’s why in the lead up to the NSW State elections this Saturday, Wayside Chapel is joining Wesley Mission and the NSW Council of Churches to campaign on gambling reform and ‘put pokies in their place’. What we’re calling for are some very reasonable recommendations including a cashless gaming card, midnight closing hours and a state-wide self-exclusion register. We’re not campaigning for gambling to be banned, just for simple accommodations that we would put in place for anything that has the potential to take your life overnight.  

My apologies for the blunt nature of this note, yet sadly, this significant issue has moved from the front pages to a side note through the election campaign, amidst cost-of-living pressure and high inflation, both of which unfortunately play into the hands of a nation that prides itself on being (the very ironic) “Lucky Country”. 

Mac experienced the devastating effects of a life in thrall to the pokies, but he now volunteers to help people. You can make sure that more Australians facing gambling addiction have that same opportunity. Pokies reform is urgently needed. Together, we have a chance to support people like Mac to find a way out. 

Thank you for being part of the Inner Circle.


Rev. Jon Owen
CEO & Pastor
Wayside Chapel

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