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A bad bet: super funds gambling stocks reflect our national blind spot

Carol Bennett

9 Nov 2023

Introduction by Croakey: Interest in ‘the race that stops a nation’ may be waning, according to recent polling from Essential Research, but Australians still like to place a bet on Melbourne Cup day.

The same research found that about two-fifths of Australians would place a bet on the race, with 31 per cent of those aged 18 to 34, who said they “rarely” gambled, making an exception for the Cup.

In the article below, Carol Bennett, Chief Executive Officer of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, points to the role superannuation funds play in supporting the gambling industry through their investment portfolios, and says there is no place for funds to be investing members’ money in such equities.

She urges the Federal Government to strengthen superannuation fund portfolio holdings disclosure and to fund an independent agency rating and certification of superannuation products.

Carol Bennett writes:

Australia has a very big blind spot when it comes to gambling and the immense harm it causes in the community.

Gambling harm is not treated as a public health issue like other ‘harmful, legal’ products such as tobacco or alcohol. There is little or no government funding of research or public education to better understand just how harmful gambling can be.

Of course, it is not a natural blind spot; it is one that has been carefully curated and bankrolled by the billion-dollar gambling industry.

It is an industry that outspends virtually all others when it comes to advertising, with over a million gambling advertisements broadcast on free-to-air television and on radio alone in the 12 months to April 2023.

The industry also outspends all others when it comes to political donations, government lobbying and providing a revolving door of jobs and consultancies for former politicians.

But even with this edifice of influence that helps keep Australia ignorant on gambling harm, there are times when our blind spot even staggers long-time, hardened gambling reform advocates.

One example of this is the fact our largest superannuation funds are holding billions of dollars in gambling equities. Our largest 10 funds have a shareholding in Aristocrat alone that totals at least $1.67 billion.

One fund with more than a million members is HESTA, which promotes itself as “investing in and for people who make our world better”.

According to recent analysis undertaken by the Alliance for Gambling Reform, HESTA holds more than $351 million in gambling-related equities.

The analysis shows that HESTA’s ready-made super portfolio holdings as of 30 June 2023 included shares in gambling-related companies such as Aristocrat Leisure Ltd ($198 million), the Endeavour Group ($51 million) and Flutter ($39 million).

And these figures don’t include Blackstone, the private equity firm that acquired Crown, of which its holds almost $12 million worth of shares.

Rather than steadily devolving itself of gambling stocks, HESTA actually increased its holding in gambling stocks by almost $15 million in the last six months.

I believe that most Australians would be shocked by the level of investment that their superannuation funds have made in gambling stocks.

I have personally spoken to several members of HESTA – who work in the health sector – who were appalled that a so-called ethical fund could hold such a portfolio.

Predatory behaviour

Make no mistake, the gambling industry is a predatory industry that preys on the vulnerable and rips out billions of dollars in losses from communities across Australia.

During the recent national inquiry into online gambling, Sportsbet faced questions over shutting down gamblers down when they were winning. The committee’s report also highlighted that gamblers who were losing were at times offered incentives to keep placing bets.

There is no place for superannuation funds to be investing our money in such equities – especially those funds that spruik their ethical credentials so prominently.

It is unacceptable for super funds to claim – as some do – that by investing in gambling companies they can bring influence to bear to reduce gambling harm. We have not seen any evidence to support this claim.

Australia loses a staggering $25 billion every year to gambling. It is a loss, per capita, that easily outsizes every other country on the planet.

And while the industry does its best to cover it up and governments mostly adopt a ‘don’t ask, then we don’t know’ approach to gambling harm, we are deluding ourselves if we think the world-record losses don’t come with world-record social, health and mental health-related harm.

Despite the fact there is little funding for independent research, public education, prevention or treatment, we do know that gambling creates harms that go well beyond just financial loss.

It is also linked to family violence, family breakdown, physical and mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, shame and isolation.

Recent research into the link between gambling and suicide in Australia lamented the lack of information that was collected but surmised, based on research in other countries, that gambling could be responsible for up to 20 per cent of Australia’s suicides.

Greater transparency needed

The lack of information or the lack of readily available, comparable and easy to understand information on gambling is profound.

In the case of superannuation funds, the current portfolio disclosure requirements regime is patently inadequate as a tool for enabling Australians to readily identify which equities superannuation funds are invested in, and to make informed choices about how their retirement savings are invested.

There is an urgent need for the Federal Government to enact improved superannuation fund portfolio holdings disclosure requirements, and to fund an independent agency rating and certification of superannuation products.

Most of our political leaders do know what harm gambling causes our community, but the cost of speaking out or taking action is too great.

Given the long history of political inaction on gambling, I believe that we need health philanthropists to step into the gap to fund more independent research on gambling, to aid successful prevention programs and to support public education campaigns to help Australians understand the scale and impact of gambling harm.

Indeed, superannuation funds could make a profound difference for good if they not only divested in gambling stocks, but actively looked to fund and support measures in our community to reduce gambling harm.

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