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Harm Minimisation A “Hand Up” For Problem Gamblers

August 3, 2011

in Social Justice

By Steve Doyle

“I stole from friends or borrowed money with concocted stories to hide my gambling losses; I had become a pretty despicable person. Over the years, I knew my gambling was out of control, but I didn’t want to stop. In the 1990s, I met up with an old friend; he gave me somewhere to live and I have lived with him ever since. I have lied and stolen from him in order to keep gambling; every time he has accepted me back and tried to help me with my gambling. I am sure if it wasn’t for him I would not be alive today. In 2002, after a very heavy gambling session where I lost $7,000 in two days at the casino, I finally realised I had hit rock bottom. I started attending Gamblers Anonymous. I found a fellowship where I wasn’t judged and realised I wasn’t the only gambler.”

From Problem Gambling – More than a matter of winners and losers, St Vincent de Paul Society, NSW, 2010.

Much attention in the media recently has focused on the efforts of independent MP Andrew Wilkie to pressure the Federal Government into taking effective action on gambling reform. Mike Steketee (The Australian, 28 may 2011) draws our attention to the fact that Australians are the world’s biggest losers in respect to gambling, losing $US1,300 for every resident (excluding tourists) aged 17 and over. He goes on to present “staggering” statistics on gambling in Australia and a very cogent argument in support of Mr Wilkie’s crusade for reform of the gaming industry.

What, you may ask, has this to do with the mission of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Australia? The mission and vision of our Society speak about serving Christ in the poor and “working to create a more just and compassionate Australian society… encouraging them (the poor) to take control of their own destiny.”In this article, I will attempt to relate these words to the efforts of the Queensland State Social Justice Committee in supporting and advocating for gambling reform in our community.Firstly though, I would like to emphasise that we do not support a prohibition on gambling, viewing it as a legitimate recreational activity, provided it is properly regulated. Our goal is minimising the harm to families in the context of addressing the issues of social disadvantage that make gambling an attractive option for those who can least afford it. Education, mental health, employment and housing all play a vital role here.

In 2010, Dr Andy marks, Senior Research Officer for the St Vincent de Paul Society in New South Wales, published a research paper entitled Problem Gambling – More than a matter of winners and losers. Dr Marks’s paper examines the findings of the 2010 Productivity Commission Report into Gambling in regard to the Society’s role in dealing with problem gambling and its relationship to socio-economic disadvantage. He said not-for-profit social service agencies like the Society are most likely to become involved at the stage where gambling becomes a problem.

The 2010 Productivity Commission Report into Gambling found the social costs of problem gambling to be at an estimated $4.7 billion per year. These social costs include suicide, depression, relationship breakdown, lowered work productivity, job loss, bankruptcy and crime. Gaming machines were shown to account for 65 per cent of total expenditure on gambling and 75-80 per cent of problem gambling. Problem gamblers were said to number 115,000, with another 280 000 categorised to be “at moderate risk”. (This number is all the more staggering when you consider family members and acquaintances including workmates who are affected by the problem gambler’s behaviour.) Problem gamblers are estimated to contribute a 40 per cent share of gambling machine losses, which Mike Steketee argues “…goes a long way to explaining the virulent campaign the industry has mounted against reform proposals.”

In the Queensland Community Sector Position Statement Regarding Queensland’s Responsible Gambling Strategy, September 2009, there is a clear demonstration of dangerously high concentrations of poker machines in areas of low socio-economic and indigenous communities. It is therefore clear to our Queensland State Social Justice Committee that a significant social justice issue exists in that those bearing the greatest burden of harm from problem gambling are those who can afford it least and are those who our Society seeks to serve.

Harm minimisation recommendations of the Productivity Commission Report that are supported by our organisation include:

  • The amount of cash that players can feed into machines at any one time should be limited to $20 (currently up to $10,000).
  • There are strong grounds to lower the betting limit to around $1 per ‘button push’ instead of the current $5-$10.
  • Shutdown periods for gaming in hotels and clubs are too brief and mostly at the wrong times. They should commence earlier and be of longer duration.
  • Better warnings and other information in venues would help.
  • Relocating ATMs away from gaming floors and imposing a $250 daily cash withdrawal limit in gaming venues would help some gamblers.
  • Problem gambling counselling services have worked well overall. But there is a need for enhanced training and better service coordination.
  • mandatory pre-commitments should be introduced.

In December 2010, the Society released its National Policy of the St Vincent de Paul Society – Harm Minimisation in the Poker Machine Industry, endorsing these recommendations. In February this year, National CEO John Falzon and myself made written and spoken submissions on behalf of the Society to the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform. In march, Cath News (21-25 march) reported that the Catholic Church, which had previously been notably silent in regard to this issue, had come on board to participate in an Australian Churches’ Gambling taskforce urging gambling reform.

Mandatory pre-commitment measures are the subject of currently proposed legislation. They would empower problem gamblers who have impulse control difficulties to make a rational decision, away from the carefully engineered enticements and distractions of gaming venues (such as alcohol), about how much they are prepared to lose, and lock them out of machines once the limit had been reached. Research has shown that problem gamblers are capable of such rational limitations and that these are beneficial. Surely this aligns with the Society’s philosophy of a hand up and “encouraging them to take control of their own destiny.”

Mandatory pre-commitment will lead the way in the implementation of effective gambling reform measures recommended by the Productivity Commission. Such measures would enable a gaming machine industry that does not continue to develop and sustain itself at the expense of the most vulnerable in our community.

However, there will be strong resistance to this legislation by the powerful gaming machine lobby (represented by those who produce and market gaming machines, as well as licensed clubs and pubs that operate them) and a great reluctance to implement it on the part of state governments that derive a large proportion of their income from gambling revenue (11 per cent in Queensland in 2008-09) and are supported by large donations made to political parties by the gaming machine lobby. This strong resistance to legislation demonstrates just how dependent the industry is on problem gambling for  its revenue.

The arguments put forward to oppose the legislation include the loss of benefits to sporting and community organisations and the decline in services and amenities offered to patrons of licensed clubs and pubs, resulting from loss of revenue. We need to weigh up the benefits against the social costs of problem gambling, and to consider that Western Australia, which has very few poker machines (1750 compared to 97,065 in NSW, and these restricted to casinos) is still able to support high levels of community and sporting participation with a much lower incidence of problem gambling, according to the Productivity Commission report.

Charities (including our Society) and community organisations benefit from grants made by the gaming community benefit funds of the various state governments. These funds, however, only serve to legitimise gambling, while returning only a small proportion of revenue so derived to the community (1.18 per cent in Queensland in 2008-09).

Arguments about the economic benefits and employment opportunities provided by the gaming machine industry that would be put at risk by the legislation can be countered by the increased spending and employment opportunities created in other sectors such as housing and retail, where income will flow towards more socially desirable avenues of spending. So what can Vincentians do to minimise the effects of gambling and give a hand up to families suffering the effects of problem gambling?

As always in our home visitations, we need to treat those we assist with love, respect, hope and joy, recognising the presence of Christ in them, regardless of their circumstances. We need to listen to their stories and, when we become aware of problem gambling contributing to their circumstances, we need to refer them to the appropriate counselling and assistance, such as Gamblers Anonymous or www.gamblinghelpservices.com.au.

Any case studies that you encounter in your visitations would be very valuable to us in our quest for justice. They are very powerful tools: more powerful than statistics, I would suggest, in our work of advocacy. Please forward them to us at social.justice@svdpqld.org.au, minus any details that could identify the client. Please raise awareness within your conference of this issue by sharing reading and reflection on this article and the references mentioned below.

In terms of advocacy, every Vincentian, indeed every Australian citizen, has a role to play in contacting their federal and state representatives in Parliament and making known your support for the implementation of effective harm minimisation measures for gambling, as recommended by the Productivity Commission and the Society’s National Policy. I can assure you that your voice matters a great deal to your local representative, for that is how this agenda has advanced so far in recent times, under the leadership of independent politicians with a social conscience like Andrew Wilkie and Senator Nick Xenophon.

Steve Doyle is the social Justice committee chair, St Vincent de Paul society, Queensland.

This article is also published in the Winter 2011 Edition of the Record

Gambling references to consider

Churches launch taskforce for gambling reform, Cath News, 23 march 2011, www.cathnews.com/article.aspx?aeid=25565.

Marks, Dr Andy, Problem Gambling – More than a matter of winners and losers, SVDP NSW, August 2010, www.vinnies.org.au/files/NSW/SocialJustice/Problem%20Gambling%20-%20Socila%20Justice%20Report.pdf

National Policy of the St Vincent de Paul Society – Harm Minimisation in the Poker Machine Industry, December 2010, www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/gamblingreform_ctte/precommitment_scheme/submissions.htm

Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform, First Report, The design and implementation of a mandatory system for electronic gaming machines, May 2001, www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/gamblingreform_ctte/precommitment_scheme/report/index.htm

2010 Productivity Commission Report into Gambling, June 2010, www.pc.gov.au/projects/inquiry/gambling-2009/report

Queensland Community Sector Position Statement Regarding Queensland’s Responsible Gambling Strategy, September 2009, www.qcoss.org.au/sites/default/files/QLd%20Community%20Sector%20Statement%20on%20Gambling%20Sept09.pdf

Steketee, Mike, We’re happy to lead the world in gambling, The Australian, 28 May 2011, www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/were-happy-tolead-the-world-in-gambling/storyfn59niix-1226063969816.

Submission on behalf of St Vincent de Paul Queensland Social Justice Committee to the Senate Committee on gambling reform, January 2011, www.aph.gov.au/senate/committee/gamblingreform_ctte/precommitment_scheme/submissions.htm.

Submission to the Joint Select Committee on Gambling reform Inquiry into pre-commitments scheme, 2011, http://www.vinnies.org.au/files/NAt/SocialJustice/2010/Submission_to_the_Joint_Select_Committee_on_Gambling_Reform_Inquiry.pdf

Article photo: www.sxc.hu/profile/nitewind23

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Steve Doyle September 13, 2011 at 8:53 am

Congratulations on establishing this facility for SVDP members and I look forward to reading some comment on this article from members paticularly any case studies of clients affected by gambling addiction. We have encountered them in our conference work. Legislation allowing problem gamblers to set limits will empower them to control their addiction away from the bright lights and allure of the pokert machines thereby offering them a real hand up. It is a context which would allow conference members to give them meaningful and effective guidance and support.

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