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We need stronger, national curbs on gambling

Rev Tim Costello

27 Sept 2022

Activists from the Grassroots Action Network of Tasmania protest against poker machines outside Parliament House in November 2021.

The departure of Star Entertainment Group’s acting chief, Geoff Hogg, could not have come at a worse time for the group, which on Tuesday is due to plead its case to the NSW casino regulator after it was found unfit to hold its licence.

The scrutiny of Star mirrors the plight of casino operators across the country. As the heat was applied the most appalling evidence of money laundering, fraud and facilitating organised crime have emerged. The powerful gambling industry faces its first significant challenge in more than a decade. The challenge is perhaps modest, but it is building.

The Tasmanian government has moved to introduce a mandatory cashless card for poker machines in pubs, clubs and casinos.

This was the system proposed in NSW but was blocked by fierce lobbying of the gambling industry; the strong opposition underscores the fact this initiative will work.

Cashless cards mean people need to prove their identity to gamble, a measure criminals who seek to launder millions hate. The card has a 24-hour $100 default limit: once you have lost $100 you are locked out and must take action to have the limit lifted. This is a significant harm minimisation measure to protect the vulnerable.

The House of Representatives standing committee on social policy and legal affairs has announced an inquiry into online gambling and its impacts. It is my hope this will be a thorough look into the industry, its predatory tactics and the support systems for those who experience harm.

A further opportunity to curb the toll gambling takes is the initiative by the federal Department of Social Services to review the tagline used in advertising aimed at reducing harm. The current tagline – “Gamble responsibly” – is woeful and shifts the blame to those being exploited. Among the possible taglines the department is considering are “Chances are you are going to lose” and “What’s gambling really costing you?”.

Australians are the biggest losers to gambling in the world per head of population – a staggering $24bn every year. Most of the losses, especially through poker machines, are in some of the nation’s most vulnerable neighbourhoods.

The industry, with its deep pockets, its political donations and its aggressive lobbying, will fight against reform. More than a decade ago the Gillard government was on the verge of introducing sweeping reforms when pressure from the industry forced a stupendous and dispiriting backdown.

Once again, efforts at reform are at risk of being stamped on by the industry.

Here we need more national leadership: the states effectively have been captured by the industry, their regulators are impotent to hold operators to account. It is extraordinary to think gambling is the only public health issue that has no publicly funded, independent body to research and mitigate the damage it causes. Smoking, alcohol, drugs, obesity and mental health are all recipients of public funding for independent bodies to work to prevent harm and the impact on the public purse.

Instead state and territory governments have ministers for gambling. Imagine a state minister for smoking? And if a government supports gambling, any government-run body is hardly likely to challenge policy on the industry.

There needs to be greater funding for independent efforts to curb gambling harm, to research its effect, to propose reforms and hold the industry to account. If it doesn’t come from state government, it should come from the federal government. If it doesn’t come from the public purse my hope is the philanthropic sector will lead the way. But funding must come if we are to curb the terrible harm to communities across the country.

That is why I am calling for the creation of a national gambling regulator. It is clear the state system is failing and a national approach is long overdue.

Tim Costello is chief advocate, Alliance for Gambling Reform.

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