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As NSW election looms, the tide is turning on the powerful gambling industry

Carol Bennett, AGR CEO

31 Jan 2023

Introduction by Croakey: Just as Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, led to a shift in how people viewed the pesticide DDT, so too is a fundamental shift needed in how people view gambling and the powerful industry involved, according to public health experts in England.

“As we struggle with a cost-of-living crisis, we must ask why we seem unable to act against a powerful industry that, in effect, acts as a mechanism for transferring money from the poor and vulnerable to the wealthy and privileged,” they write in the BMJ. “When will the gambling industry have its Silent Spring moment?”

The call is made in the context of policy discussions in the UK, but is also timely for Australia, especially as the forthcoming NSW election is putting gambling-related harm into the headlines (though too often with the industry-friendly terminology of ‘problem gamblers’) and shining a light on the industry’s hold on power.

Addressing the power and influence of the gambling industry is one of five public health priorities identified by the NSW branch of the Public Health Association of Australia in a statement ahead of the 25 March election (the others are: protect young people from the harms of vaping; promote healthy weight among children; act boldly on climate change; and make prevention a health system priority).

“Gambling significantly harms the physical, social, and mental health of communities, families and individuals,” says the branch’s election advocacy platform.
“Implementing a universal pre-commitment cashless card system, with regulations and legislations that prohibit advertising and other incentives, can help control gambling and money laundering activity. To support this policy, we’re calling on all political parties to refuse pre-election agreements with the gaming industry.”

Meanwhile, The Alliance for Gambling Reform is advocating for a mandated cashless gambling card for all poker machines in NSW with mandatory pre-commitment, binding and default limits (that follow the Tasmanian model) and does not allow the use of credit. See its position paper released today.

Below, the Alliance’s CEO, Carol Bennett, explains why she believes the tide is turning on the gambling industry.

Carol Bennett writes:

Gambling has become a key election issue in NSW – a situation that is unprecedented in any recent state election campaign. Gambling can be a political graveyard issue, a great way to both shorten a political career and reduce potentially lucrative post political career options.

Some Croakey readers might recall the 2011 backflip on gambling reform by minority Prime Minister Julia Gillard, despite doing a deal with independents to implement gambling harm reduction measures. The economic and political power of the gambling industry in Australia has grown significantly since 2011.

Yet, in 2023, community sentiment in support of gambling reform has forced politicians on all sides to take positions on critical gambling reform policies like the cashless gambling card. This brief article will explore why.

Why is reform needed?

Australians lose more money to poker machines (electronic gaming machines – EGMs) than any other country in the world, second only to Singapore by a staggering 40 percent.

In NSW alone, there was a total of 86,640 EGMs as of 30 June 2022 and $3.8 billion was lost to them in the first half of 2022. On those figures, NSW gamblers are on track to lose over $6 billion in 2022.

A myriad of recent reviews, royal commissions, and even a NSW Crime Commission inquiry have all been unanimous in their findings of widespread criminal activity associated with gambling (including money laundering, fraud etc), lack of compliance with regulation and significant harm especially on our most vulnerable communities.

Gambling harm is much like alcohol harm in so many ways, with a powerful industry seeking to normalise and downplay the significant health, mental health, economic and social problems that often go hand in hand with a culture where gambling is omnipresent. The harm is also disproportionately felt by some of our most vulnerable populations.

While Australia successfully managed to impose public health informed harm reduction measures on alcohol availability and promotion, reform to address the significant public health impact of gambling has not been commensurate with the level of harm caused.

Despite gambling being a harmful product similar to tobacco or alcohol which both have dedicated areas of the health department addressing the harm, there is not one health bureaucrat we have identified in any health department federal or state in the country concerned about the impact gambling products are having on our children and our community!

The harm associated with gambling is a blind spot for most governments.

The Federal Government has a very clear regulatory role in areas including casino and online gambling and advertising – areas that are needing urgent and overdue reform.

In recent questions directed to Prime Minister Albanese about the preparedness of the Federal Government to take some responsibility for the impact of gambling harm in Australia, he deftly side-stepped the issue, hand-balling it back to state and territory governments.

It is hard to reconcile this ‘not my issue’ approach in an area desperately requiring national leadership to address a problem that has made Australia a standout world leader in harm.

Aside from the detrimental impact gambling is having on our national health, social and economic prosperity, there are clear ethical issues about the way we are inculcating gambling into our culture.

When it comes to products causing such a high level of harm – be it alcohol, tobacco, driving cars (seatbelts, speed limits, etc.), it is clearly in the public interest for regulation to occur at a national level.

NSW issues

NSW is the state with the largest number of poker machines, limited regulation on availability, and a history of blurred relationships between the gambling industry, politicians and political parties.

For instance, the Australian Labor Party owns some of the largest poker machine venues in the country and benefits significantly from revenue and political donations. The Coalition and Nationals are not immune from the largesse of the industry and are similarly conflicted when it comes to genuine and significant gambling reform.

The Greens and some key independents (Alex Grenwich, Helen Dalton and others) have taken a positive approach and supported gambling reform, leading the push for gambling regulation and policy changes.

NSW has arguably seen the largest impact of gambling harm – and it is now being felt strongly in the community with mini casinos in every suburb in the form of community clubs – which used to be places where people could socialise over a meal and enjoy some harmless entertainment. This has changed considerably in NSW.

What has been clear in recent months is that the clamour of voices calling for change extends well beyond the usual gambling reform advocates to include high profile supporters such as former PM John Howard, former nationals leader John Anderson and The Whitlams front-man, Tim Freedman, who penned a hit song about the misery of gambling harm following the death of his fellow band member who was in the grip of a gambling addiction (Blow up the Pokies).

If media and public opinion polling is any guide, the balance in favour of gambling reform has finally moved past the tipping point with multiple reports highlighting the widespread and pressing reality of gambling harm in NSW.

The rich portrayal of individual stories like ClubsNSW whistleblower Troy Stoltz and on-line gambler Gavin Fineff have backed the hard evidence of the NSW Crime Commission and numerous casino inquiries across Australia.

If people were not already convinced, having the constant bombarding on every TV screen, mobile phone and online device with gambling promotions and inducements has become a source of ongoing irritation for many. Seeing our sports and our local clubs sell their souls to the gambling industry does not sit well with many Australians.

And now that every screen and mobile device can be a gambling machine, no-one wants our children to be guinea pigs in an experiment where they are subject to thousands of gambling promotional advertisements and inducements before they even reach puberty.

A loud and powerful choir of hundreds of thousands of people in NSW and beyond no longer buy the spin (‘gamble responsibly’) and misinformation (it is just another form of harmless entertainment) that are the cornerstone of pro-gambling advocacy.

The community have seen enough, heard enough, and know enough to understand that gambling reform in NSW and nationally is long overdue.

The NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has responded to the call – although it’s not without division within his own party and still lacks detail.

Opposition leader Chris Minns has disappointingly backed away from real reform – instead opting to support the industry who so generously support his party and political hopes.

Where to now?

Whatever the outcome on 25 March, gambling-related harm is unlikely to fade back into the background.

It is now clear that gambling is exacting a huge health toll in our community. It is also clear that any politician who doesn’t accept that gambling represents a public health issue of real concern to many Australians is choosing to ignore the growing evidence of the significant impact of gambling on individuals, families, workplaces and communities.

There is always a price to pay when we all pretend the emperor is wearing glorious robes. It is time to address what is plainly obvious. The gambling industry is mostly profiting from desperation and harm.

In the words of Premier Perrottet, ‘in essence, we’re taxing on the misery of others’.

Gambling reform will make us a safer, healthier and fairer community.

• The Alliance is a national advocacy organisation which works to prevent and minimise the harm from gambling. Our aim is to remove the shame that surrounds gambling, have the problem treated as a public health issue, and achieve the legislative changes needed to protect our communities.

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