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Federal government must introduce national gambling regulator

Rev Tim Costello

6 Nov 2022

Most people were not offended by the tagline, gamble responsibly - that followed the multitude of gambling advertisements that we are bombarded with every day.

But if people understood the deliberate irresponsibility of the industry, the evidence that through its casinos and poker machines in pubs and clubs it has facilitated organised crime, fraud and money laundering involving billions of dollars - they would think differently.

If they understood how the industry preys on those who are vulnerable, offering inducements to those who are already hopelessly indebted and shutting down anyone in danger of winning too much - they would think differently.

Indeed, if they understood the way the gambling industry behaves, they would be outraged that is has taken so long to have these gambling warning's changed.

Yet it is a great move to finally junk "gamble responsibly" and credit to Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth for making it happen.

But it is no more than a first step.

Far more action needs to be taken to reign in an industry that costs Australian's $25 billion in losses a year.

The average person should be outraged that our politicians continue to be captured and frightened by an industry that uses its political donations and political lobbying to ensure there is no curb on its irresponsible behaviour.

Let's look first at the explosion of online betting in Australia, then we will look at the evidence that has emerged of the appalling behaviour of the gambling industry and why there is now a compelling argument for a national approach to curb gambling harm.

In terms of gambling advertising, Australia is the wild west.

No one can watch TV or a device and not be bombarded with sports betting advertisements.

The latest available figures 1 from (the ironically named) Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation show that an average of 948 gambling ads ran on free-to-air TV every day in 2021, with 148 ads airing between the traditional family viewing time of 6-8.30pm.

That reflects a 153 per cent increase since 2016, surpassing the ad spend by the alcohol industry, and delivering an ad on our screens every minute of every day.

The UK by contrast has 11 sports betting ads a week and Spain and Italy none.

It is legal to gamble there but they refuse to allow advertising that will allow their children to be groomed by the gambling industry.

Publicly the appalling behaviour of the gambling industry has been exposed through inquiries into casinos from coast to coast. They all found evidence of fraud, money laundering and the facilitation of organised crime.

The NSW Crime Commission was the latest to release its report, finding billions of dollars of criminal money was being laundered on poker machines and crimes were being committed to fund poker machine habits.

This last finding is significant. Most people tend to think poker machines only hurt a few people. But the crime to fuel poker machines hurts us all.

And this is just the irresponsible behaviour that has been publicly exposed.

I have spoken to an insider who still works for a sports betting company and has more than 20 years' experience in the industry.

He is so sickened by the hypocrisy of the "gamble responsibly" message that he reached out to me.

He said in all sports betting companies teams of people work to identify punters who are gambling irresponsibly - not to flag an intervention, but to offer them inducements to gamble more.

They call this "targeted generosity".

Once identified, a person is offered a bonus inducement and if not taken up in a few hours the bonus is increased.

The industry is also looking for their own version of problem gamblers, but these are not vulnerable people who are losing too much gambling, these are the people winning too much. And they then move to shut them down.

All of this reflects a loosely regulated, irresponsible, predatory industry that is out of control.

And despite public comments about their concerns about gambling harm, state and territory governments - with the exception of Tasmania - have failed to take decisive action.

Tasmania has shown the way with bipartisanship political backing of a cashless card that sets loss-limits. The hope is that other states and territories will follow.

There is still hope that NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet will act on a cashless card but in NSW Labor is showing no appetite to support real change.

And while there are some reforms in the ACT, the government has wrongly ruled out a cashless gambling card which is one of the best defences against gambling harm.

There is some merit in the idea being floated by ACT now that explores banning TV gambling ads or restricting them in times when children are viewing.

But such approaches and the larger failure of state and territory governments to act means there is now a growing recognition that gambling needs to be tackled at the national level.

Independent Federal MP Andrew Wilkie recently called for a royal commission into gambling and also for a national gambling regulator.

I personally know of many other parliamentarians in Canberra who would be keen to back a federal intervention into gambling.

It appears clear that there is a growing tide of anger in the Australian community against the power of the gambling industry and the manifestation of it on our screens.

Changing tag lines is not enough. The federal government must urgently act to limit the number and timing of gambling advertisements to at least protect our children.

More broadly, it's time for the federal government to establish a national gambling regulator to finally enforce some restrictions on an industry that is out of control.

The crimes that gambling facilitates such as money laundering cross state borders. They need a federal solution. We need leadership and we need action.

Tim Costello is the chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform.

We need as many of you as possible to post in the Canberra Times comments to get this the traction it deserves.

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