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Money talks: How the gambling industry imposes untold misery on our nation

Rev Tim Costello

15 Nov 2023

It’s time for the not-for-profit sector to step up and champion the need for gambling reform, writes the chief advocate of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, Tim Costello.

Australia has a dire need for the philanthropic sector to fund efforts to curb gambling harm in Australia.

The need is critical because of the catastrophic failure of government to protect our community from the impact of gambling.

Australians lose more to gambling – $24 billion annually – per capita than any other country on the planet.

The latest poker machine figures for FY22/23 show that losses now exceed pre-COVID levels.

The impact is devastating, not only on personal finances but in the form of family break-up, domestic violence, health problems, and mental health issues.

A recent report warned that up to 20% of suicides in Australia could be linked to gambling harm.

I have personally presided over the funerals of four people who have taken their life because of gambling.

I have met grandmothers who were jailed because they stole from their employer to feed their poker machine habit.

I have met people who have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in just minutes.

There appears to be no restraint or brake put on gambling companies that prey on such people.

Despite this, there is virtually no independent research into gambling harm.

Australian governments don’t want to fund it because they simply do not want to know. If they knew, then they would have to do something about it.

Most Australians I speak to don’t believe that Australia needs more sports gambling advertising. And most parents I meet don’t want more efforts made by the gambling industry to reach their kids with gambling odds, either through televised sports or through gaming apps on their phones.

In fact, there is a white-hot anger in the community around the proliferation of gambling advertisements on our screens and the impunity with which a predatory gambling industry targets our children.

And yet unlike for other harmful legal products such as tobacco and alcohol, there is virtually no government funding of public health campaigns or funding of research in gambling harm.

Instead, state governments have ministers “for” gambling, and when our political leaders speak of “gambling harm” they are inevitably concerned with things that harm the betting industry – not the harm the betting industry is causing to our communities.

"Money buys relationships. Money buys silence. Money buys power.

Our politicians just don’t get how on the nose the gambling industry is in our community.

The newly released Swinburne Leadership Index ranked leisure and gaming companies last in virtually every category including leadership, fairness, integrity and public value.

An ALP-led federal parliamentary inquiry into online gambling recommended significant gambling reforms including a phased-in total ban on all forms of advertising of online gambling over three years.

And yet even these recommendations – which followed public hearings that laid out the devastating impact gambling is having on people – are likely to be largely ignored by the Albanese government.

The ALP itself still owns a number of poker machine clubs and reaps millions in revenue from them. It is hard not to conclude that Labor has its own gambling problem.

So why do our political leaders not act to protect us?

There is a one-word answer: money.

Money buys relationships. Money buys silence. Money buys power.

The gambling industry has very, very deep pockets. It can afford to outspend other industries in the political donations it bestows on the two major political parties at federal, state and territory level.

Alcohol and gambling companies and their lobby groups donated $2.165 million to Australia’s major political parties in 2021–22, a 40 per cent increase on the previous year.

Then there are the lobbyists.

Alliance for Gambling Reform chief advocate Tim Costello.

Lobbyists are typically recruited from the revolving door of politics. They include Kai Cantwell, CEO of Responsible Wagering Australia, who worked for the Department of Social Services in gambling regulation, then as advisor to the federal minister (under Scott Morrison) responsible for regulating the industry, Anne Ruston.

He is one of many.

Money buys relationships.

One former politician once explained to me that he needed the $1 million salary that big gambling was paying him as a lobbyist so he could afford the cost of living for his family. Lifestyle choices?

There is no doubt that providing high-paying roles to former politicians and senior departmental staff has given the gambling industry an inside track. It allows them unprecedented access to key political decision-makers, and it allows them to run interference with any moves to make significant reforms.

Money buys silence.

These are outlets that profit enormously from the tsunami of sports gambling advertisements.

One commercial television reporter told me, after an interview in which I had lambasted free-to-air TV and the sporting codes for opposing the gambling advertising ban, that she completely agreed with my view but her editor would be angry with my comments and would probably edit them out.

The censorship that happens in Australia as a result of money and power makes us all poorer. It makes our children more vulnerable.

So, when government and big business collude in an industry that harms the public, there is an opportunity for the philanthropic sector to lead the way.

There is an opportunity for them to champion the need for reform and change. To fund advocacy groups, to fund research. There is an opportunity for them to be the conscience of the nation and make an irresistible case for government action.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform is the only independent advocacy body working in this area. We work on a shoestring budget against a predatory and ruthless billion-dollar industry. It is a true David vs Goliath battle.

Australia is in the grip of a gambling epidemic which is taking a devastating toll on our community.

The government won’t act.

Big business won’t act.

Socially concerned philanthropy is, arguably, one of the only options that can turn this situation around.

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