There are an awful lot of pubs and clubs in Australia. I should know; I’ve visited a lot of them. Country clubs, city pubs and everything in between; from Mooloolabah to Blacktown to Bright, and more besides. I’ve spent plenty of time in watering holes up and down the length of Australia’s east coast, and I’ve learned one fundamental truth.
There are two types of pub in Australia, two types of club. Those with poker machines, and those without. No matter how you dress them up with fancy decor and boutique beers, or dress them down with fence-paling bars and chooks out the back, in the end it’s the pokies that are the difference.
Pokies pubs and clubs have a very different atmosphere to their pokie-free cousins. It’s almost a sense of distraction; everyone knows that the pokies are where the money is coming from, even though in many cases they seem embarrassed to admit it. In fact, in a lot of venues (pub venues mainly) the gaming rooms are hidden away, and every effort is made to pretend they don’t exist. Clubs, on the other hand, have a tendency to put their machines smack bang in the middle of everything. It’s hard to convey a sense of community belonging when all around you, money is being siphoned away at high speed.
Now, I freely admit to having a particular bias on this topic. I would much rather walk a mile or two to another venue than give my custom to a pokies pub, and the reason is simple. As a young man, I poured years of my life and thousands upon thousands of dollars into poker machines. I was on the hook, and no amount of wriggling could get me off it until pretty much everything I had and everyone I knew was gone. So these days, older and wiser, I look at the pubs and clubs with their gaming rooms and their glitzy signs, and I walk on.
And I’m not alone in feeling this way. Here in my home state of Victoria, there have been a number of battles waged over the past few years, by residents fighting to slow down or prevent the spread of poker machines into their communities. Romsey’s fight took them to the Supreme Court, Jan Juc marshalled their resistance via Facebook and most recently, Castlemaine won a landmark VCAT decision after years of unified persistence. Sadly though, the truth is that for each of these victories, many more battles are lost, and venues approved… and so the poker machines continue to hold sway.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Because the reality is that there’s actually a third type of pub out there, a third type of club which is bucking the trend and, essentially, making a stand. These are the venues that had poker machines, that knew what they meant in terms of income and revenue… and said, no more.
These are the venues that have handed back their poker machines, and started life anew. In many ways they’re just like me; they’ve broken free from the addiction that pokies brings, and made a decision to change. It’s a massive decision to make; believe me, when you’ve been on the receiving end of the kind of money poker machines can bring in, it’s damn hard to walk away. But for some people, it was the right thing to do… indeed, it was the only thing to do.
Over the coming weeks I am going to profile a number of these stories. I’m going to talk to the people involved, the people who made the decision to go pokie-free and who’ve tackled the challenges that followed; I’m going to find the stories behind the scenes.
From trendy inner-city pubs in Sydney, renovated, refurbished and reopened without a poker machine in sight, to community clubs in one of the Gold Coast’s hottest poker machine demographics, to a Melbourne RSL that found a unique musical replacement for its poker machines and more besides… these are the stories we need to hear.
They are proof, not just that there is life without pokies, but that there is life AFTER pokies. It’s a lesson that thousands of people learn every year, and now some venues are learning it too.
Next week: A Musical Solution