AUSTRALIA has a long tradition of social disapproval of gambling. Gambling, however, like grog, is here to stay. It’s been with us since the First Fleet arrived, and most Australians today enjoy – and are entitled to continue to enjoy – the occasional punt on the horses, spin of the pokies, or an instant scratch lottery. Eighty per cent of Australians gamble each year. For the majority, it is a relatively harmless recreational activity that doesn’t cause severe social or economic dislocation.
Yet gambling losses have skyrocketed in the past 25 years – from $94 lost per adult in 1975-76 to $988 in 2000-01. Last year, Australians gambled away $14.37 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The proliferation of poker machines – one in five of the world’s gaming machines is in Australia – has swallowed up the bulk of the increased losses. In the latest figures, gambling losses were highest per person in the Northern Territory, outstripping NSW and Victoria for the first time. Western Australia, on the other hand, does not have poker machines in its clubs and pubs, and had the lowest level of gambling losses per adult in 2000-2001.
You don’t have to be a wowser to realise that problem gambling is costing Australia economically and socially, and requires a more sophisticated regulatory response. But it’s too easy, in the debate about our national addiction to UFABet gambling, to confuse rational policy prescriptions with a killjoy mentality that favours prohibition. It’s the 15 per cent of gamblers classified as “problem gamblers” who need help, and urgent policy attention. They don’t suffer alone. Society bears the cost of their addiction in the form of family breakdown, bankruptcy and the increased burden on social welfare and health services. For every problem gambler – there are an estimated 300,000 – who may contemplate suicide, or lose time from work or study, at least five other people are affected, according to the Productivity Commission’s 1999 report into gambling. As the commission said: “Policy approaches for the gambling industries need to be directed at reducing the costs of problem gambling – through harm minimisation and prevention measures – while retaining as much of the benefit to recreational gamblers as possible.”
This is a sensible premise to work from. So what have our governments done since this landmark report was released nearly three years ago? Not enough. The Prime Minister tut-tutted and formed the ministerial council on gambling; however, it hasn’t yet managed to formulate a comprehensive national approach to gambling – an approach that targets the most vulnerable addicted gamblers, and reduces government reliance on their revenue-generating losses. The difficulty is that problem gamblers, who lose on average $12,000 a year, account for one-third of the gambling industry’s market. It is therefore not in the interests of the gambling industry to lose some of its best customers. Some measures have been put in place – NSW and Victoria have taken steps to curb 24-hour gambling – but they have made little difference.
The states are as addicted to gambling revenues as ever. This is despite the much-vaunted windfall to state coffers from the GST, which was predicted to curb the states’ reliance on gambling. NSW, for example, enjoys $1.5 billion in annual tax revenue from gambling. South Australian anti-poker machine MP Nick Xenophon has called for the Productivity Commission to investigate to what extent the $1.1 billion increase in gambling losses is the result of an increase in problem gambling. This would be a start. The regulatory environment also needs to change. More needs to be done to give informed consent, and therefore enhance consumer choice, as the Productivity Commission argued. Reduced access to ATMs and credit, and “pre-commitment options”, can help save addicts from exorbitant losses.
We need a national approach to problem gambling. With Labor governments in power in every state and territory, and a prime minister committed, rhetorically at least, to curbing problem gambling, what are we waiting for?