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After 25 years of losing, I’ve just had a win on the pokies


1 Aug 2023

Anti-gambling campaigner Tim Costello is full of praise for Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews' recently announced pokies reforms. Now he wants other leaders to follow suit.

Two weeks ago, Victorian Premier Dan Andrews announced sweeping reforms for pokies. For me, after 25 years of campaigning, it was the beginning of the end of a state government protection racket for a predatory industry that has caused so much harm to Victorians. Congratulations, Dan.

I am told that the premier was visibly moved by the lived experience of my friend Carolyn Crawford, who spoke at his unexpected press conference which shocked the gambling industry as the reform package sent shares in Endeavour Group down 10% the next day.

Crawford had been introduced to the pokies by her boss and over the next seven years “borrowed” and stole $400,000 to feed her addiction. She was sentenced to four years’ jail. She has served her time and repaid all her debts but she lost her house and superannuation. How does a law-abiding middle-aged woman who has never been in trouble with the law end up in prison for four years? Because of a highly predatory and addictive product that has enjoyed state protection to make it ubiquitous.

Australia has 76% of the world’s pokies in pubs and clubs and the greatest gambling losses per capita in the world. In other nations pokies are largely confined to casinos which is destination gambling. People intend to gamble when they go to a casino but have to travel and know they have to get home. Here people are often not intending to gamble but rather to go shopping and find they have half an hour on the parking meter and are entrapped. In other nations pokies are simply not accessible at all hours throughout towns and suburbs.

Accessibility to around 5000 pubs and clubs with pokies across Australia is why we have seen so many marriages, finances (and lives) destroyed. I have attended the funerals of six people who took their lives out of shame that they were “irresponsible”. No. It is these highly addictive machines that are irresponsible, and the only sector of society that has ever been against “responsible gambling” is the pokies industry. Its business model is built on addiction with nearly 50 cents in every dollar going through a machine coming from someone who is experiencing gambling harm or is addicted. 

Andrews’ announcement of a card with a $100 limit means an end to the hypnotising loss of time and money once in the zone of a machine designed to release dopamine to soothe your anxieties. The limit will force a player to have to get up, walk to the counter and make a decision. Their captured mind will have to focus — the spell has every chance of being broken. And no criminal will sign up for a card to launder their cash from selling ice or burgled hot goods as they will not want to reveal their identity. 

It is so refreshing to have a premier at last listening — a premier moved by the harm to people and then acting. If only fellow east coast Labor premiers Chris Minns and Annastacia Palaszczuk would follow suit.

My experience of raising harm with successive gaming ministers in many states over many years is that they interpret harm as meaning harm to the industry and to Treasury’s bottom line. They have protected the very ones imposing harm. It is a bit like having a government tobacco minister to protect cigarettes. In this respect, let me applaud Victoria’s Gaming Minister Melissa Horne who drove these changes and who listened to the voices of people like Crawford who had lived through and paid the consequences for such harm.

Likewise, at a federal level, while I am dishing out praise, look at the recent House of Representatives inquiry into online betting and its report: “You win some, you lose more“.

Labor chair Peta Murphy and a bipartisan committee actually listened to the stories of so many people triggered and devastated by the tsunami of sports betting advertisements. They discovered how the betting companies track every punt and slow down or block someone winning and offer bonus incentives and money-back offers to those who are losing. Predatory behaviour.

But at last someone was listening. The committee’s 31 recommendations include a ban within three years on all these advertisements dominating our lives and sport — thus protecting children from being groomed as they watch AFL.

But I know that right now behind closed doors these betting companies along with free-to-air TV and the AFL and NRL are putting the weights on the Albanese government to oppose a ban. In secret the most powerful vested interests in the nation are crying that this will affect their bottom line and they are the ones harmed.

I do not know if Albanese will cave or how this will end, but how refreshing that a parliamentary inquiry actually listened to people who were harmed and spoke up for children.

We all know the power of vested interests and their self-interested financial bottom line, particularly now there is some transparency about PwC and the other big three with their snouts in the taxpayers’ trough.

Transparency was delivered by the robodebt royal commission just listening to the voices of victims, to their profound anxiety and stress over having to prove they were not welfare cheats against an illegal government algorithm. And the commissioner listened to families whose loved ones had died by suicide.

We are all influenced by the voices we listen to and make cruel judgments about welfare cheats or irresponsible problem gamblers. We have never explained why we have the greatest gambling losses per capita in the world, 40% higher than Singapore, the nation that comes second. For too long the dominant voice of the gambling lobby has been “Australians just love a punt”, as if people in other countries don’t.

No. We have just had the most irresponsible policies anywhere in the world and Crawford and thousands of others are finally being heard.

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