Thursday 16 February 2012
By Denis Fitzgerald, Executive Director of Catholic Social Services Victoria
Kairos Catholic Journal Vol 23 issue 2
Gambling looms large in Australian culture, with an estimated three-quarters of the population engaging in some form of gambling each year. And gambling issues are never far from the headlines, particularly when there is a political element. Prime Minister Julia Gillard's recent withdrawal from an agreement with Andrew Wilkie MP to introduce specific measures to reduce the harm that results from playing poker machines gained saturation coverage.
The focus on poker machines is, in a sense, surprising. According to the Productivity Commission, in an extensive 2010 report, 70 per cent of Australian adults never use poker machines. About 600,000, or 4 per cent, of Australians play the pokies at least weekly and the impact of the machines spreads widely into the community.
Players choose to spend time in the hotels and clubs that host the machines, so they clearly value the experience; clubs provide sponsorship for community activity; and the industry makes a contribution to taxation revenue—$1 billion a year in Victoria alone.
But these community benefits come at a high cost. This is why Andrew Wilkie and others have focused their attention on pokies.
After allowing the pokies industry to grow rapidly in the 1990s, the Victorian Government is now focused on reducing the harm it causes. Awareness of problem gambling has been heightened to assist gamblers to make rational decisions not to spend money they cannot afford; funds have been allocated to counselling for problem gamblers; and research is under way to better understand the associated issues.
Steps have also been taken to reduce the risk: ATMs will soon be banned from gambling sites; and the maximum bet has been reduced to $5. Under its recently announced policy to replace the broken agreement with Andrew Wilkie, the Federal Government will also trial a mandatory pre-commitment scheme in the Australian Capital Territory.
These developments are to be welcomed. But few observers think that they will have much impact on problem gambling.
One detects within governments a broad acceptance of current arrangements, and a preference for incremental change that seems unlikely to impact heavily on problem gambling, or on the revenue that problem gamblers provide for governments and for the operators of the machines.
Many within the Australian churches do not share that consensus. It is not acceptable for the community to benefit at the expense of those who are marginalised and disadvantaged, which problem gamblers and their families are. At state and federal level the churches are working to gain acceptance for ways to prevent the harm before it happens.
Reducing the maximum spend per 'button push' to $1 has been advocated by the Productivity Commission as a step that would not adversely impact on most of the social benefit of gamblers, but would reduce some of the loss from problem gambling. Such a move away from 'high-impact' pokies would bring Australia back into line with the rest of the world.
These issues will continue to be important to Australian society long after the breaking of the Wilkie agreement has fallen out of the headlines.
They will continue to be a priority for the services that see the problems for individuals and families that arise from gambling; and for those who do not accept the argument that the activity is acceptable as long as some benefits flow to the broader community.
It is not a matter of being anti-gambling, but of ensuring that the proper regulation is in place to protect the vulnerable in our society. Catholic social teaching is clear in its support for such protection.
The problem with pokies
Pokies account for 83 per cent of Australia's 115,000 problem gamblers.
Fifteen per cent of all regular poker machine players are problem gamblers, and they contribute 40 per cent of the revenue that is gained from these machines.
On average, each problem gambler spends $21,000 a year on pokies.
A further 15 per cent of pokies players are considered at risk of becoming problem gamblers.
One assessment is that, on average, each problem gambler adversely affects the lives of a further 7.3 people, so about 800,000 Australians are adversely affected by pokies-induced problem gambling.
(The 2010 Productivity Commission report Gambling, as reported in Kairos in February 2011)
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