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On the gambling industry’s political gift-giving, the proof is in the pudding

Carol Bennett, AGR CEO

8 Mar 2023

Introduction by Croakey: A recent insightful comparison of the tactics used by tobacco and gambling industries also provides some lessons from the history of tobacco control that are relevant for efforts to address the harms caused by the gambling industry.

The article, ‘How the push to end tobacco advertising in the 1970s could be used to curb gambling ads today’, notes that “merely providing honest information about smoking was not enough”.

“The tobacco control effort had to galvanise public dissatisfaction and motivate media action through evidence-driven, high-profile advocacy. A similar approach could be a way of forcing government to take action against the powerful interest groups supporting pervasive gambling advertising today,” write the authors Dr Carolyn Holbrook and Dr Thomas Kehoe in The Conversation.

First, it will be necessary to address some glaring political conflicts of interest, writes Carol Bennett, CEO of the Alliance for Gambling Reform.

Carol Bennett writes

As a society and as a health sector we were far too naïve, far too trusting and far too late in realising and then challenging the lies of big tobacco.

Tobacco executives repeatedly lied and buried their own research that showed how addictive and harmful their products are – all for the sake of making profits.

Thankfully today government regulations strictly limits tobacco availability and promotion to reduce the harm it causes our health, our lives and the wider economy. Of course the industry is still seeking to exploit any avenues it can in the quest for profit and vaping has become the new frontier with a new generation of young people the new target.

Yet when it comes to the gambling industry, it feels like we have gone back in time. If feels like we have learnt nothing.

It is a sector that is ruthless in ensnaring people in debt, it spends millions on ways to make its products more addictive, funds its own tainted research and is responsible for destroying countless lives, even leading many people to take their own lives in despair and shame.

Australians lose $25 billion through gambling every year. Online gambling is growing at a disastrous pace. Our screens are bombarded with ever more and more gambling ads and our children now quote the odds on all their favourite sports.

Meanwhile despite decades of campaigning, the gambling industry is able to resist any significant reform on its poker machines. Indeed, Australia has more poker machines than anywhere on the planet. Its impact on local communities is poisonous.

And yet this is an industry that is not under siege. Australian governments still have ministers for the promotion of gambling, but no ministers for gambling harm reduction.

Regulatory capture

Gambling is an industry that has expertly created a system in which it is a primary source of consultation for government regulation. And at the same time it has expertly engineered it so that those who are seeking to reduce gambling harm or those with lived experience do not have a seat at the table.

It is an industry with deep pockets, it funds research that serves its own ends. It advised the government on ‘technology’ that allows it to delay or even avoid reforms such as reducing loss rates or implementing a mandatory cashless gambling card.

And then there are the political donations it makes and the largesse and hospitality that it provides to politicians of all colours.

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

Perhaps this political largesse is just another symptom of an industry that has captured its own regulators. Or perhaps, more sinisterly, this largesse is why they have been able to orchestrate a regulatory environment that does not challenge their business model or profits.

When you compare the gambling landscape to the regulation of other public harms such as tobacco, your head spins in disbelief.

Political reach

The political conflict of interest has been most profoundly highlighted recently by the revelations that Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, who has responsibility for gambling regulation, accepted $19,000 in effective donations from gambling company Sportsbet prior to the last election.

And yet banning political donations from the gambling industry is not enough to close loopholes that allow gambling executives ‘unfair’ and ‘privileged’ access to ministers who regulate the sector.

New analysis of MPs interests undertaken by Open Politics has revealed a raft of federal MPs with responsibility for regulating the gambling industry received VIP tickets to sporting and charity events. And the Open Politics listing is probably just the tip of a much larger iceberg.

In the case of Minister Rowland, as well as receiving those political donations, she also received a raft of free tickets to sporting events from Tabcorp and tickets to the show Hamilton paid for by the Star Entertainment Group during her time as Shadow Minister and as Minister for Communications.

Other examples include Anne Ruston in her time as Families and Social Services Minister accepting tickets to the Australian Men’s tennis Semi Final on 28 January 2022 from Sportsbet.

And Dan Tehan, while Minister for Social Services, attended as a guest of CrownBet a fundraiser event on 3 August 2018 called ‘The Million Dollar Lunch’ to support a Children’s Cancer Foundation.

Paul Fletcher, while Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts, attended the Melbourne Cup in 2019 at the invitation of Tabcorp and Network Ten.

These ministers argue that they comply with all the disclosure obligations they are required to. But it is inconceivable that ministers would accept such invites from Big Tobacco. It simply highlights the hypocrisy of how the political system still accepts gambling, despite it clearly being a product that causes significant harm.

The reality is that the gambling industry buys privileged access to ministers who are responsible for regulating many aspects of their industry.

Gambling interests have political access that is not available to groups attempting to reduce the harms caused by gambling or to people with lived experience of the devastation that gambling can cause. Anyone who doubts how much influence the gambling industry exert over regulators need only look at this program for regulators being held in Sydney this week.

We must move to ban all political donations from the gambling industry and there must also be bans on other forms of providing inducements and favours to politicians and their families that could influence the behaviour of a minister, politician or bureaucrat and undermine public confidence in our democracy.

Politicians and policy makers say they are not swayed by political donations, but the proof is in the pudding.

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