Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Remarks to National Churches Problem Gambling Forum

Location: Canberra

Thanks Alistair (Macrae) for your warm welcome.

I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet today, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

I would also like to welcome all of you here to Parliament House.

And thank you for the enormous commitment you have made – both personally and through your organisations – to helping problem gamblers and their families.

I also want to acknowledge Bob Everett, who is here today to share his personal experience with gambling.

To remind us of the people behind the statistics.

Many witnesses to the current Joint Select Parliamentary Inquiry on Gambling also shared their stories.

Susan told the inquiry how she became, in her words, “hooked” within weeks of beginning to play as what she called her “downslide into pokies hell” began.

As she told the Inquiry in Adelaide:

I went in eight weeks from being a happy-go-lucky, socially active mother and friend to a restless, isolated, depressed and suicidal woman.

I went in eight weeks from being rational and organised to unreasoned and distracted, in eight weeks from being a loving, kind and caring mum to apathetic, irritable and terminally distracted, in eight weeks from being a financially stable money manager to being a financially self-sabotaging fool.

In less than a working day, in only six hours, she put her entire weekly pay into the poker machines.

Of course, the impact of her gambling problem was devastating for Susan – on her self-esteem, her financial situation but more importantly on her children.

As you all know, gambling not only impacts the lives of the gambler, it has a terrible impact on children.

Children of problem gamblers miss out on much of their childhood – not only material things like food and a comfortable home, although this is a reality for many.

But also the time with their parent that problem gambling takes away.

And the legacy stays with them for a long time.

A report by the Australian Gambling Research Centre found that children with parents who are problem gamblers are up to 10 times more likely to grow up to be problem gamblers than the children of non-gambling parents.1

It also found that children living in families affected by problem gambling are more likely to be the victims of child abuse and neglect, suffer psychological problems and have unhappy early childhoods.

The children of problem gamblers are also more likely to experience family break down, as problem gamblers are six times more likely to be divorced than non problem gamblers.

We all know that Australians like a punt – whether it’s the occasional flutter at the races, buying a lottery ticket, playing the pokies or a night out at the casino.

Australians spent more than $19 billion on gambling in 2008-09, nearly $12 billion of it on poker machines.

This is a big industry. More than 145,000 people are employed in the gambling industry, many in our regional cities and towns.

Clubs and pubs are popular, friendly venues where Australians like to get together. And for many people, gambling is a fun social thing to do.

But for others, gambling and particularly playing the pokies, can spiral out of control, with devastating consequences.

Over and over, people who’ve had a gambling problem, describe getting hooked on the pokies, recalling just how addictive poker machines are.

In fact, one in six people who regularly play the pokies has a serious gambling problem.

These people spend on average up to $21,000 a year on poker machines – almost a third of the average Australian salary. Money that isn’t being spent of food, paying bills or paying off the family mortgage.

As we all know the effects ripple through families, friends, work colleagues and employers, impacting up to five million people Australians.

Despite the wide-ranging impact problem gambling has on vulnerable Australians and their families, it remains a largely hidden social problem.

Unlike other social problems affecting millions of Australians, like smoking, alcoholism and drug abuse, problem gambling is seldom talked about.

Problem gamblers rarely admit even to themselves they have a problem. They find clever ways to hide their addition from their loved ones – sometimes to the point of keeping a separate bank account so that their spouse can’t see the extent of their spending.

In fact, only about 15 per cent of people who have problems with gambling seek help.

It is because of this that it is so important that as a nation we have a conversation about problem gambling. So that we can bring this hidden addiction out into the open, and give Australians the support they need to talk to their loved ones about their gambling habits.

The taskforce you are launching today will play an important role.

Church and community groups across the spectrum deal with the devastating impacts of problem gambling every day – from gambling and financial counsellors to family relationship services, and sadly, child protection services.

You see that problem gambling really can destroy families.

What everyone here today knows is that more must be done to tackle problem gambling.

That is why the Government referred the issue to the Productivity Commission in our first year of Government. A move that was widely supported by industry, the Opposition and minor parties, and by community groups.

Now with the recommendations of the Productivity Commission in hand, there’s still much that we agree on.

There is now a strong consensus that pre-commitment is a helpful tool for problem gamblers and people at risk.

Industry leaders including the AHA and Clubs Australia also agree that pre-commitment should be available for players on every machine, in every venue across Australia.

They agree with us that the technology behind pre-commitment – that is a card reader and associated software – should be on every machine across the country, but they don’t want all regular players to use it.

Where we differ is that the Government agrees with the Productivity Commission that a pre-commitment system where all regular players would be prompted to set a limit they can afford, provides stronger protections.

In the Government’s view, a ‘voluntary’ system would be like having seat belts in cars but making wearing them up to the individual.

Pre-commitment is not about taking away people’s responsibility for their own behaviour, or the Government controlling people’s money.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about providing a tool to help people make informed decisions to better manage their own money.

Despite what some media reports have suggested, there will be no fingerprinting of gamblers or collecting biometric data.

We want a card-based system that is easy to use. Just like club membership or loyalty programs cards that many regular players already have.

In addition to this new tool, we also support electronic messages on poker machines to inform players about the risks and costs of their gambling, as well as limiting cash withdrawals from ATMs in gaming venues to $250 a day.

The Government is working with the States and Territories to reach an agreement on a pre-commitment system that can be implemented at a local level.

We are also receiving expert and specialist advice from industry, researchers and the community sector through a Ministerial Expert Advisory Group, including Brad Halse from the Salvation Army who is here today.

The work of churches and community services on the frontline has been and will continue to be crucial to ensuring problem gambling is on the national agenda.

  1. Australian Gambling Research, Children at Risk of Developing Problem Gambling, May 2010