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Online gambling does great harm. Why is government rolling the dice with public health?

Rev Tim Costello, Chief advocate for the Alliance for Gambling Reform

11 Jan 2024

When is a parliamentary inquiry not a real parliamentary inquiry? When the minister responsible decides to hold a series of private meetings, behind closed doors, with organisations that have a vested interest in the outcome – many of which didn’t bother to put in a submission to the public inquiry.

And so, it is with the landmark parliamentary inquiry into online gambling.

Online gambling is a fast-growing form of gambling across Australia, fuelled by a tsunami of advertising that dominates our sporting events and saturates the media we consume.

More than one million gambling ads ran on free-to-air and social media between May 2022 and June 2023. Enough is enough.

We should all be thankful for the amazing work and dedication of the Federal Labor MP for Dunkley, Peta Murphy, who sadly lost her battle with cancer recently.

As the chair of the Federal Inquiry into Online Gambling and its harms, Murphy worked tirelessly – even in the last days of her life – to investigate and expose the harm experienced by the community from online gambling.

Her work led to a landmark report with 31 recommendations that, if implemented, will arrest the increasingly devastating impact that online gambling and advertising is having on our nation. Among the recommendations was a reasonable and gradual ban on gambling advertising and promotions to be phased in over three years.

The ban has been fiercely opposed by “big gambling”. It is also opposed by those who benefit from gambling advertising including many commercial media outlets.

But rather than state their case in a submission to the inquiry, documents released under freedom of information have revealed gambling companies, broadcasters, sporting codes and global tech companies have all sought or secured meetings with the Communications Minister Michelle Rowland and her staff to respond to a proposed total ban on wagering advertising.

According to the documents, gambling companies Sportsbet, Crown, Betfair, PointsBet, Tabcorp, Betr, BlueBet and Entain, which runs the Ladbrokes and Neds brands, have all discussed their concerns with the minister or her staff. The AFL and the NRL have also had two meetings with the minister to voice their concerns.

We have no problem with the government consulting stakeholders who would be impacted by possible changes to laws. But the time and place for these organisations to put their case was, surely, during the public inquiry.

Like many other Australians, I would like to know what information is now being provided to the minister behind closed doors. Have gambling interests submitted their own versions of the costs of a ban? How can we know or test the validity of claims being made by those who make increased profits if Australians lose more money gambling?

When the government does eventually release its response to the Murphy inquiry findings, the public should have confidence in the integrity of the process. But if there is a lack of transparency about what evidence, lobbying, or data have informed the minister, the decision-making process will clearly be compromised.

Gambling has a terrible financial, social and health impact across Australian society today.

Australians lose more than $25 billion to gambling every year and per capita we lose more than any other country in the world.

The government received the recommendations of the Murphy Inquiry in June last year. There has been ample time to review them.

It is now time to resist the pressure and back-door lobbying by big gambling and other vested interests and adopt the carefully considered recommendations of the multi-party parliamentary inquiry.

This is an opportunity to honour Murphy’s work, to create a legacy that not only acknowledges her hard work and dedication, but also one that will greatly reduce gambling harm.

Australia has a huge blind spot when it comes to gambling and the immense harm it causes in the community.

Gambling harm is not treated as a public health issue like other “harmful, legal” products such as tobacco or alcohol. There is little or no government funding for research or public education to better understand just how harmful gambling can be.

Our collective blind spot didn’t just appear overnight, it has been carefully curated and bankrolled by the multi-billion dollar gambling industry.

It is an industry that outspends virtually all others when it comes to advertising, and in other areas including political donations, government lobbying and providing a revolving door of jobs and consultancies for former politicians.

But Australians can only have the wool pulled over their eyes for so long. Polls have shown that more than 70 per cent of Australians want a gambling advertising ban.

There is good evidence and a groundswell of popular support for a gambling advertising ban. The government would be reckless to ignore the recommendations of the Murphy report, despite the fact gambling interests continue their fierce lobbying efforts behind closed doors.

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