By Tim Costello, Chief Advocate, Alliance for Gambling Reform
We are all sick to death of the tsunami of gambling ads that are swamping our screens. It is the most visible sign of Australia’s gambling epidemic.
Australians like a punt and I am not against that. The games of two-up which were played around the country on Anzac Day is mostly harmless enough. As is an occasional punt.
But as a country we now lose $25 billion annually – way more per capita than any other country.
This goes beyond a punt. It is driven by ruthless, profit-hungry gambling operators that are spending millions of dollars to entice and entrap Australians into losing their money. This is very much the case when it comes to poker machines.
Their increasing damage is evidenced by the latest figures in NSW which showed pubs and clubs raked in a record $8.1 billion in poker machine profits last year.
This has rightly prompted NSW politicians such as independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich to again highlight the critical need for the new Labor government to introduce a mandatory cashless card.
Without greater government action the odds are simply stacked against us. But unfortunately because Australian governments receive both tax revenue and political donations from the gambling industry the regulation has been up to now a joke.
While we know gambling has a horrendous financial, health and mental health impact on people and communities – there is precious little independent research into just how damaging it is and how we can prevent this harm.
That is why the national Tackling Gambling Harm symposium being held in Adelaide today, 1 May, is so important. A range of experts will speak at the symposium which is believed to be the most significant meeting yet held that will look at tackling gambling harm in Australia.
The conference is being jointly held by the Alliance for Gambling Reform and the Public Health Association of Australia. Understanding gambling as a public health issue should be self-evident but staggeringly precious little work has been done in this area.
Public health experts will be joined by gambling experts and most importantly people with lived experience of gambling harm. The chair of the federal parliamentary committee looking into online gambling, Peta Murphy, will speak as will other key federal parliamentarians including Senator David Pocock, Rebekha Sharkie and Andrew Wilkie – the last two of whom chair the Parliamentary Friends of Gambling Harm Reduction.
I have been campaigning for serious gambling reform in Australia for more than 30 years and I believe the momentum for gambling reform is now greater than at any other time in Australian history.
The March NSW election was a watershed in which gambling reform was for the first time a central policy issue and those candidates who campaigned on gambling reform out performed their pro-gambling peers.
The Federal Parliamentary inquiry into online gambling is also shedding new light on the depth of Australia’s gambling problem and the greed and ruthlessness of the gambling industry.
And for the first time there are chinks appearing in the amour of the previously all-powerful gambling lobby and evidence their bullying political tactics are failing.
There is a white-hot anger in the community about the tsunami of gambling ads that swamp our screens whenever we watch a sporting event. Parents are furious that they cannot protect their kids from the unscrupulous marketing of the profit-hungry gambling industry.
Australia came very close to gambling reform under former Prime Minister Gillard, but she was not acting on conviction, her hand was forced by the Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and ultimately she reneged in the face of a brutal industry campaign.
But now there are many individual politicians around the country both Federal and State that are prepared to stand up to the bullying tactics of the industry and who are receiving strong support in their electorates to do so.
We are now better placed than at any other time in our national history to put real pressure on governments to reign in the out-of-control gambling industry. People are just too angry to let government off the hook now.
The lack of government action on gambling symbolised by the fact no government funding or sponsorship support was offered to hold this critically important conference.
It is almost incomprehensible that a conference that seeks to prevent gambling harm in a public health context cannot be supported by dedicated federal government funding – as there is in almost any issue that creates harm in the community be it alcohol and drugs, tobacco or alike.
I am hopeful we will have real and long-overdue gambling reform in Australia.
But I suspect this change will not come from government leadership but by those people brave enough to stand up and force the government to take action.