The problem with gambling
Australian churches take a punt on stopping gambling addiction.
Of the 600,000 Australians who regularly play poker machines on a weekly basis, 15 per cent are problem gamblers; individuals who have difficulty controlling the impulse to gamble.
They account for 40 per cent of overall gambling expenditure.
Gambling made my adrenaline flow, it was just like getting high,” he said.
According to the Productivity Commission’s 2010 report into gambling, between 80,000 and 160,000 Australians suffer from severe problem gambling, with three-quarters of those people playing poker machines.
They lose an estimated average of $21,000 every year. A further 280,000 people are at risk of developing a dependency.
There is a high social cost for Australia’s problem gambling epidemic: problem gamblers commit theft in order to service their debt and have an increasing risk of becoming suicidal.
The Productivity Commission report places the economic impact of this at a minimum of $4.7 billion.
UnitingCare’s Director of Public Affairs, Judith Tokley, told Insights that “the impact of someone’s gambling problem affects up to ten other people, including at least one child.”
Bob Everett is one person who has struggled with a gambling problem. In a story featured in the Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Everett told Australian Associated Press that this dated back to his teenage years. As a 15-year-old, he would gamble on horses at the racetrack or play two-up with the other men in the mining town of Port Pirie, South Australia.
“Gambling made my adrenaline flow, it was just like getting high,” he said.
When poker machines were first introduced in the 1970s, his addiction, which lasted more than 40 years, was “topped off”. Gambling cost him around $1 million and eventually saw him incarcerated for seven months for embezzling money.
Upon his release, a support group in Adelaide helped Mr Everett overcome his gambling problem.
He believes the community is unaware of the “disease”.
“If you’re an alcoholic or drug addict people have sympathy, but if you’re a gambler they assume it’s your own fault,” he said.
Commitment to justice
Helping problem gamblers in a similar predicament to overcome their dependency is a long-held priority for the Uniting Church, which has been a major provider of gambling rehabilitation since 1995.
Services includes counselling to help those with a gambling problem to overcome it, financial counselling to help them manage their money and legal assistance ranging from advice to providing representation if a crime has been committed to service a gambling debt.
UnitingCare is one church agency that provides these services. This, Ms Tokley said, stems from “a commitment to justice, full participation by its citizens in the shared life of Australian society and a particular concern for the most disadvantaged and marginalised Australians”.
Wesley Mission has dedicated gambling assistance centres in Newcastle, Sutherland and Western Sydney.
Wesley Mission’s Public Affairs and Research Manager Graeme Cole told Insights that Wesley Mission also operates Sydney and Sutherland Lifeline, taking more than 2,000 calls a year. Most of those calls, he said, related to mental health issues and suicide prevention.
Some are gambling related.
The recent political debate around how to tackle problem gambling has seen the issue placed on the national agenda. In order to secure the backing of independent MP Andrew Wilkie in the hung parliament, the Gillard Labor Government agreed last year to introduce “pre-commitment” technology to gambling devices.
This technology is intended to curb problem gamblers’ losses by controlling how much money they may lose per day. According to the 2010 Productivity Commission report into gambling, pre-commitment technology requires all users to sign up for a smart card to play the pokies, with all machines linked to a central server.
Players would choose a limit for how much money they were willing to spend in a set period and would be locked out of playing for that time when the money ran out.
Australia’s largest churches have made a significant contribution to the debate. On March 22, senior members of Australia’s churches gathered for a forum in Canberra that saw the launch of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce. The taskforce calls for all Australian governments to act on problem gambling.
According to Ms Tokley, the taskforce will include “representatives of the major churches, leaders of the churches’ social services arms and the chairs of the state-based inter church gambling taskforces”.
The forum chair and Uniting Church President the Rev. Alistair Macrae has said that the taskforce supports the proposed pre-commitment technology “because it focuses regulation on machines and venues and requires gamblers to choose and stick to their own gambling limit. People choose what limit to set, as high or low as they like.”
Mr Macrae also said that gambling was potentially dangerous.
“Gambling is a product that causes a problem for 30 per cent of regular users,” he said. “This is not a benign product. It is a dangerous product for many. The Australian churches want to see measures which, if people choose to gamble, will help people to do more safely.”
The forum was attended by several politicians with an interest in gambling legislation, including Liberal MP Kevin Andrews, independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Greens Senator Rachel Siewert. The Senators later successfully co-introduced a motion welcoming the creation of the church taskforce.
The motion also expressed concern over problem gambling and commended ongoing efforts to introduce pre-commitment technology.
However, the proposed technology has widespread opposition among Australia’s clubs. ClubsAustralia has launched a $20 million advertising campaign under the slogan “It’s Un-Australian”. The ads, featured on television and displayed in clubs, liken the technology to “a license to punt”.
Clubs New South Wales spokesman Jeremy Bath told news agency Agence France-Presse that pre-commitment technology would have a devastating impact on clubs.
“This technology, through its punishment of the recreational gambler, will decimate club revenue by at least 40 per cent. This is a figure no business, let alone one that is not for profit, could ever hope to survive,” he said.
According to the website Its-UnAustralian.com.au, ClubsAustralia wants a six-point plan implemented. The plan emphasises the importance of consumer gambling education and suggests uniform harm minimisation strategies be applied across the industry.
“The heritage we are looking to defend is the right of Australians’ being able to gamble with their money without being treated like they are doing something shameful or wrong,” Mr Bath said.
Mr Macrae, however, indicated that the churches’ taskforce was undeterred by the industry’s campaign.
“The rot has to stop. If a club or hotel can only exist on the back of problem gambling spending and its huge human cost, it is not a viable business,” he said.
“Our priority is to ensure gambling policy supports consumer protection and harm minimisation.”
Ms Tokley said, “The churches don’t want to stop people enjoying the pokies but we do expect that the clubs and hotels ensure gambling in their venues does not cause harm. The churches simply seek basic consumer protection.”
A possible compromise option currently under consideration is to limit mandatory pre commitment technology to high intensity electronic gambling machines, an option recommended by the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform, chaired by Andrew Wilkie.
It’s important that an agreement is reached across state and federal governments sooner rather than later,” Ms Tokley said.
Ms Tokley considered this idea to be a “reasonable compromise”.
“Players using high intensity machines can lose up to a staggering $1,500 an hour,” she said. “Low intensity machines, by comparison, limit losses to an average of around $120 an hour. They feature a $1 maximum bet limit, a $500 maximum prize and a $20 maximum load up.”
On May 27, at a Council of Australian Governments (COAG) Select Council on Gambling Reform meeting in Canberra, state and territory ministers for gambling agreed that pre-commitment technology was a useful tool for helping problem gamblers.
They did not come to an agreement on implementing the technology, however, with whether or not it should be mandatory being a point of difference.
“It’s important that an agreement is reached across state and federal governments sooner rather than later,” Ms Tokley said.
The issue, then, is sure to be a protracted and contentious one in Australian politics. Ms Tokley told Insights that Australia’s churches “are well placed to influence the debate”.
“We have a long and proud history of standing with and advocating for a decent life for our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens,” she said.
“The current political climate provides a unique opportunity for change. A strong national voice from the churches will add significant weight to a campaign that promises to reflect the significant interests at stake on both sides of the debate.”
Jonathan Foye is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney and a freelance journalist.
Wesley Mission’s Gambling Counselling Centres:
Fairfield (25 Barbara Street, Fairfield)
Phone: (02) 9723 4289
Newcastle (Unit 1/12 Hudson Street, Hamilton)
Phone: (02) 4963 9200
Sutherland (3A Stapleton Avenue, Sutherland)
Sydney (Level 7, 133 Castlereagh Street, Sydney)
Phone: (02) 9263 5577
Kingswood (30 Copeland Street, Kingswood)
Phone: (02) 4725 9200
Wyong (1a Pacific Hwy, Wyong)
Phone: (02) 4351 0116