I’m often asked, as the CEO of one of the only pub groups in Sydney that doesn’t operate poker machines, what on earth I’m thinking. A fair question, really, given that our state carries the second highest quota of so-called “brickie’s laptops” in the world, behind only Las Vegas. It’s also leading the way in Australia – NSW has half of the nation’s pokies.

The simplest answer I can give is the most well-known: that poker machines are a moral hazard, purpose-built to prey on the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. Study after study demonstrates that poker machines contribute to an increase in domestic violence, bankruptcy, homelessness, child neglect, depression and suicide wherever they are present in the community. That kind of harm is compounded by the fact that Australia has a unique obsession with pokies, housing 76 per cent of the world’s non-casino gaming machines.

Yet the moral argument against gaming machines has failed to land with government and much of the industry, even though it’s widely accepted by the public. Sixty-seven per cent of Australians asked in a 2011 Essential Research poll supported reforms to gaming laws such as the mandating of pre-commitment technology. And support for reform has gradually built over the past decade. In fact, a poll taken just last month by the Sydney Morning Herald, in light of NSW premier Dominic Perrottet’s election promises, showed that 60 per cent of voters back a mandatory cashless card for poker machines – with just 16 per cent of those polled opposing any reform.

Never miss a Sydney moment. Make sure you're subscribed to our newsletter today.

SUBSCRIBE NOW

But, over the last 20 years, barely any legislative progress has been made. The influence of NRA-style special interest groups has prevailed in the face of overwhelming public support for reform, and the reverend Tim Costello should be applauded for banging his head against this wall for so many years.

The deep-pocketed, politically entrenched pokies lobby in NSW knows it will never win the moral argument. You’ll notice its emissaries don’t usually try. They will point to the incredible community work Clubs NSW does and hope you don’t notice that it’s funded by the broken dreams of your feature-chasing grandma on pension day. Businesses such as Crown will funnel millions of dollars into projects like facial-recognition technology for self-exclusion schemes that experts say don’t work, and those on my side of the fence can see that they’re doing little to curb problem gambling.

The reality is – as Perrottet recently admitted in a moment of surprising candour – the state government is simply addicted to the revenue, and whatever is currently being done to stop problem gambling is just not working. The sheer strength of the gaming lobby has also been powerful enough to head off any movements for reform, state or federal, over the last two decades (Julia Gillard’s famous attempt to legislate mandatory pre-commitment in 2012 comes to mind).

But with both major political parties in NSW now supporting the rollout of cashless gaming – a move that sent shockwaves through the industry last week – the writing is on the wall. NSW will, in some form or another, get mandatory cashless gaming after this year’s election. (Although there’s now talk of regional pubs being exempted). If I could place a hopeful bet, I’d say limiting maximum bets will likely follow.

My sincere hope is that the effect will be the throttling of gaming revenue to a level that it is insignificant on the publican’s balance sheet. Not just for the moral good it will do – which we’ve heard about ad nauseum, to no effect, for the better part of two decades – but because it will spur on a cultural revolution that we desperately need.

Our pubs are shit, Sydney. I’m sorry to be the one to say it, and I do so as a true lover of pubs and an operator of some of Sydney’s best. But it’s the simple and honest truth. Our watering holes stink. And the poker machines are to blame.

I started my hospitality career during university, pouring pints to help pay the rent. I fell so deeply in love with the experience of working in a pub that I bailed on an offer to do my graduate studies at Oxford University so I could kick kegs around in a dark cellar in the Sydney CBD. I adored the social function pubs perform in our communities – meeting spaces; melting pots of socioeconomic and social groups; places where all are welcome. Spaces where the operator can directly affect, even control, what a customer sees, feels, tastes, hears and smells. You get to customise experiences for people. That perceptual access that customers entrust our industry with is a sacred thing. We have a responsibility to deliver exceptional food, beverage and service. It’s the reason people go out rather than stay in.

The problem is, where food and beverage once reigned supreme, the proliferation of poker machines in NSW pubs in the 1990s created a third profit centre. In NSW, food and beverage are now challenged – and indeed in many cases usurped – by poker machine revenue. And the result is utterly unsurprising.

As a pub manager in Sydney, you are taught all the tips and tricks to a successful gaming room. Always have traditional lagers and house wines available for cheap. Have inexpensive counter meals available. Have ATMs at every exit. Identify the big spenders and do everything practicable to ensure their comfort.

More predatory venues go further – hiring only people of a particular sex or ethnicity to run the gaming room; providing putatively illegal incentives to gamble by offering free drinks or food under the guise of a pub or club loyalty program. You could call it our industry’s “dirty secret” if it wasn’t so well documented in the disciplinary decisions of Liquor & Gaming NSW.

When food and drinks become loss leaders, designed to prop up gaming revenue, it’s no surprise these tactics are given higher emphasis than the pursuit of food and beverage for its own sake. Loss-leading is rife in NSW pubs – but that $12 steak or $10 burger costs more than you think. It’s bad for every part of the supply chain: the farmer or provedore who needs to provide low-quality meat and produce at below margin to fit into the pub’s cost requirements; the operator who has to accept a diminished margin on food and beverage in an economic environment where overheads and labour costs are increasing rapidly; the customer who has to suffer through a menu designed, in part, to get money into the slots.

I remember vividly the looks of confusion on the faces of tourists from international cities like London or Paris walking into a beautiful heritage pub only to be greeted by an audiovisual display befitting the second coming of Christ. “What the fuck is a VIP lounge?” What a painfully fantastical question.

The government and opposition, thankfully, are finally taking their role in fixing this mess seriously. Pub rent in NSW is significantly higher than in other states, in large part because poker machine revenue is factored into property valuation. This makes it almost impossible to create a viable food and beverage business in the pub without the revenue that pokies create. We are very fortunate to have landlords who have worked with us to cut fresh leases that remove gaming as part of the equation – but this is rare.

Market failure is the job of the government alone to resolve, and last week’s announcements are a step in that direction. Reform is imperative for the moral wellbeing of our society, and there is also a strong business case for it. And while we’re at it, we might even re-crown our pubs as the world-class food and beverage institutions they deserve to be.

James Thorpe is CEO of Odd Culture Group, a Sydney-based hospitality group of pubs, bars, restaurants and bottle shops founded in 2017. Venues include the Old Fitzroy, Oxford Tavern, The Duke of Enmore and Odd Culture.

If you would like to speak to someone about problem gambling, call Gambling Help Online on 1800 858 858, or visit gamblinghelponline.org.au for information.

For domestic violence support and information, or to speak with someone about an experience you have had, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au.

If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.