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The New Push For A 'Pokies Free' Australia

New campaign wants to make it cool for venues not to have poker machines.

01/11/2016 1:06 PM AEDT | Updated 01/11/2016 1:23 PM AEDT
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Proudly Pokies Free wants to get rid of poker machines from our pubs and clubs.

Australia has around 20 percent of the world's poker machines -- more than 196,000, as of June 2014. According to the federal government, we spend billions on the pokies every year, and half a million Aussies are at risk of becoming problem gamblers. Further to the economic effects of poker machines, many pubs and clubs have shunted live music, stages and other entertainment to make way for rooms full of flashing lights and chiming music.

A new campaign in Sydney is looking to change that.

Proudly Pokies Free aims to make it cool for venues to operate without their financial coffers being bolstered by gambling dollars. By supporting and promoting businesses that don't have pokies, and lobbying those that do to get rid of the machines, the team led by siblings Anna and Tom Lawrence hope to create real change in Sydney and around the country.

"Nobody else is doing what Australia is doing. When you look at the harm pokies cause, not just people addicted to them but the culture they create, it'd be insane not to question it," Tom said.

"We've seen live music decimated in Sydney, increases in alcohol and substance abuse and domestic violence where poker machines are concentrated heavily. There are hundreds of suicides a year related to gambling, and so many gambling addicts have a problem with pokies."

The campaign is a personal one for the brother and sister. Their dad, Neil, made the powerful documentary 'KaChing! Pokie Nation'. Neil died last year, and just days ago Tom accepted a Hall of Fame award in his father's honour.

"It's not just the harm pokies directly cause, but the cultural losses. Our venues are becoming homogenised. It's so widespread. The most damaging form of gambling on almost every corner," Tom said.

Proudly Pokies Free launched officially last weekend, with an opening party in Sydney headlined by The Preatures and Tim Freedman of The Whitlams, who penned what might be the unofficial anthem of the movement -- Blow Up The Pokies.

Speaking to Fairfax Media, Freedman said he hoped a pokies-free movement would take off around the country.

""There's a good tradition I've noticed in Melbourne and Adelaide of some pubs being really proudly pokies free. They market themselves as family venues. And I think it would be good to spread that tradition to Sydney where it is not quite as strong," he told Fairfax.

"The more little grass-roots movements that show the powers-that-be the silent majority think poker machines are ugly and dangerous, the better."

Anna said the campaign's early stages would be about showing club patrons that pokies need not be a standard feature of a night out. The campaign will be promoting venues that don't offer poker machines.

"It's about educating our audience and having a positive conversation. Now, we're meeting with all the pokies free venues we can to get them involved, to display 'Proudly Pokies Free' stickers outside to help consumers choose a pokies free venue," she said.

Sydney venues like Young Henry's, The Unicorn and The Henson are among the early adopters of the campaign.

"We're celebrating all venues without pokies -- small bars, breweries, art spaces, live music spaces, to create that pokies free venue culture. These places are part of a culture and model that doesn't need pokies," Tom said.

"We've had interest from Adelaide, Melbourne, the NSW Central Coast and Newcastle. It's about organising those people, creating in the everyday person's mind that there's a difference between pokies and pokies free venues. You'll see people start to choose pokies-free venues, they'll look at the places without them."

The campaign has gained the official approval of the City of Sydney, with the council signing on as a supporter.

"Sydney's nightlife has long suffered at the hands of poker machines – the past three decades has seen entertainment rooms in hotels being converted into gaming rooms, with lost opportunities for live music, pub theatre and cabaret," said Lord Mayor Clover Moore.

"People would once go to the pub to socialise, but many now find themselves glued to these machines that are capable of draining thousands of dollars from players in a matter of minutes. The City works hard to support local businesses and encourage a lively and engaging creative culture everyone can enjoy. The Proudly Pokies Free campaign complements our OPEN Sydney Strategy in that it is seeking to promote a safe, inclusive and diverse night time economy."

Anna said the group would soon start talking to venues that do have poker machines to "wean them off," to spruik the benefits of a poker machine free venue and show that a venue can survive without gambling.

"What's great is that some of these pokies free venues often started off with pokies and got rid of them. At Petersham bowling club, the pokies room is now a stage. Other places, the TAB room became a pinball room," she said.

"We're also working with the Alliance for Gambling Reform, who do legislation. We're looking at whether we want to go down that route ourselves, influencing policy. But now it's about awareness, educating people about why they should care about this."

Tom said he hoped the campaign would show venues that people do want venues with more entertainment, not more gambling.

"You see these places become more family friendly, offer more things. Pokies have created lazy venues. It makes sense, you create a venue where people want to be. It's how business should survive, not just sit back while people slap away," he said.

"The biggest thing for us, and what we've witnessed in our age group, is a bit of indifference. We've grown up with it, we don't know much different. It's affecting everyone, not just the people who play them."

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