The Australian Government’s decision to close clubs, pubs and casinos in Australia on 22 March due to the impact of COVID-19 has had and will continue to have a profound impact on our whole community. It’s vital that we take this time to properly digest the gambling environment of our nation and how best to meet the community’s needs moving forward.
Now that the flashing lights and the sing-song music of the pokies are quiet, Canberra’s community stands to salvage a fairly decent chunk of change. Last year our local community lost $163m on pokies – that’s half a million dollars each and every day at the dozens of pseudo casinos in almost every ACT suburb.
While my heart goes out to the thousands of Canberrans whose lives have been impacted through job loss, this truly is a unique opportunity to right a terrible wrong that was knowingly unleashed on our beautiful city nearly three decades ago.
After narrowly avoiding taking my own life in 2012, due to a 12-year struggle with pokie addiction, my focus has been on helping others understand this space. It’s an addiction that decimates the life and resources of the person in its grip, all in plain sight.
This is an unprecedented time in our history.
A month ago it seemed unfathomable that this seemingly indestructible industry, having warded off reform for decades, could be shut down completely overnight.
The deep political entrenchment and reliance on gambling harm revenue has seen Australians become the biggest losers in the world per capita, with $24 billion lost annually by our tiny population. The social collateral damage of homelessness, intergenerational poverty, family violence, crime and poor physical and mental health outcomes absolutely dwarfs that figure and has led to gambling harm finally being recognised as a significant public health crisis. Yet zero action has ever been undertaken to ‘flatten the curve’ of gambling harm.
I’ve spent the last five years walking alongside others in the grip of gambling struggle after sharing my story publicly. I became a lived experience speaker and addiction coach, while pushing forward tirelessly and advocating for gambling reform after seeing the issue from all sides.
It’s vital to create change.
Coronavirus has meant the thousands of men and women in Canberra who regularly gambled on pokies have been given an opportunity to re-evaluate their relationship with gambling. In fact, it goes much broader than that. We have ALL been given a chance to re-evaluate our relationship with gambling.
I spent the day talking to frontline gambling support care, both in ACT and other states, to get a feel for the reaction of this decision. The overall impact has been extremely positive with many taking the opportunity for a breather and this has allowed for many to access help in a meaningful way.
The financial strain now felt by so many families and individuals has seen a huge increase in financial and debt support services not exclusively related to gambling harm.
The grave concern, however, with home isolation, is that predatory online gambling is ramping up. “Corona safe” online casinos are huge and and betting sites like Sportsbet are swapping out football odds for odds on Melbourne’s weather on any given day. And it’s all being aggressively marketed to Australians of all ages via pop-ups, banner ads and text messages; preying upon the distressed, lonely, strained and bored members of our community.
The #stayathome situation has seen a spike in gambling support services for online addiction, but this doesn’t equate to people simply switching one addiction for another, from in-venue to online. What it means is there’s a huge number of people that now have more available time – and higher levels of stress – to engage in activities that probably only ever participated in occasionally.
So how do we move forward in a way that makes sense?
In recent days the Latvian Government made the decision to protect its people from predatory online gambling during this time of isolation and has banned access.
It may come as a surprise, but it’s actually illegal to gamble in online casinos in Australia. The Interactive Gambling Act (2001), amended in 2016, was designed when online gambling was gaining pace, with the illusion of protecting the user. But what it actually does is protect and promote the bricks-and-mortar gambling venues as the ‘legal’ option for Australians. (Oh and did I mention the regulatory bodies charge a licensing fee to offshore gambling companies to gain access to the Australian market?)
There are absolutely zero penalties applied to the individual user and therefore zero consumer protection. For an illegal market, it’s incredibly active.
It’s frightening how quickly a person can lose money gambling. The spin rates on pokies have never been quicker and the machines in the ACT are among the most dangerous in Australia – they still align with NSW machines and accept $10 maximum bets. Our pokies have the ‘losses disguised as wins’ feature that is intentionally manipulative and highly addictive. They’re also able to be loaded with $10,000 at a time: making the clubs havens for money laundering.
Online casinos and online betting companies lure people in with free bets and then follow-up with aggressive marketing strategies. People can literally lose their home extremely quickly, from the comfort of their own couch.
With all of this in mind, does it make sense for us as a nation to allow this destruction to our social fabric continue? Many people are neither here nor there around this issue but the facts speak volumes and the ‘good’ that clubs contribute (e.g. the money injected back into the community) is around $11m. Remember, they take $163 million.
The public pressure around gambling harm has led to some clubs looking to diversify revenue and ultimately move away from pokie revenue. We are now, however, at a juncture no one saw coming and the clubs are putting their hands out for help, like all struggling businesses.
But it just seems reckless to enable the future of this destructive force and abuse of social licence. These venues were designed and created to meet community social and sporting needs, and yet for decades they have been less and less focused on the needs of their original design and focused on the core business of pokies and how to spend the rivers of “free” money that flow from them.
This is a unique time and a unique opportunity to reclaim the original essence of the clubs of Canberra and their responsibility to build social capital – not actively dismantle it – and hide behind the industry’s favourite catch-cry: “Gamble Responsibly”.
If we believe the lie that poker machine addiction is just an individual’s responsibility, we fail our community on every front.
Educating families, the community sector and individuals currently experiencing gambling harm in a holistic way to understand the issue helps everyone look out for one another. We need to work together, in an industry-informed way, to protect each other and the long term wellbeing of the Canberra community.
If you or someone you know is needing free help contact ACT Gambling Counselling and Support Service on 1800 858 858 or Financial Counselling Support on 1800 007 007.