On Tuesday 31 October a rally to support Women against Gambling, coordinated by the Alliance for Gambling Reform ( pokiesplayyou.org.au), was held outside the Victorian Parliament. This was (amongst others) supported by Fiona Patten MLC to send a message to MPs not to weaken laws on gambling – which may occur when Parliament returns next week.
Is there any stopping our politicians and the ‘love affair’ governments have with the gambling industry in Australia? It again emphasises the need to speak out against issues such as the Open Letter (advertisement) that John Alexander, Executive Chair of Crown Resorts, published widely in national newspapers last week as a response to claims recently aired in Federal Parliament by Mr Andrew Wilkie. In these ‘advertisements’ Mr Alexander paints a rosy picture of the benefits that Crown provides in terms of employment and ‘visitors’ it attracts, and denies any impropriety as reported by Mr Wilkie.
However, Alexander fails to acknowledge any of the very serious damage that Crown and the rest of the gambling industry have on Australia and Australians. There is no mention of the fact that Australia has the dubious reputation of having more poker machines per person than any other country in the world! Or that gambling is responsible for the death by suicide of at least one Australian every day (Gambling is killing one Australian a day, but it rakes in billions in tax www.smh.com.au).
The estimated social cost of gambling to this county is over $3.9 billion per year. Australians spend $19 billion every year on gambling, with about $13 billion consumed by poker machines. Surely as a community – and that includes the chairmen and boards of Crown and any company engaged in the gambling industry – we have a duty of care to make this industry safer and to empower more people to take control of their gambling.
There are over 500,000 problem gamblers in Australia. The actions of each problem gambler affect five to ten relatives and friends. Since 2011, NSW ambulances have attended Sydney Star Casino some 170 times a year to resuscitate their clients who have been affected by alcohol or drugs or attempted suicide. Gambling adversely affects five million Australians every year.
We know that there will always be a market for gambling in Australia but surely we don’t need to lead the world in the way it becomes so much a part of our lives. If no regulated legal gambling is available, criminals will provide it. But it has to be regulated openly and transparently. The dependence of Australia and in particular our governments on the gambling industry for raising taxation really does need a broad community debate. But why do governments always give gambling providers whatever they want?
Mr Wilkie, like Ms Patten not a member of any of the major political parties, has shone a bright light on this disgusting problem. It is no secret that the major parties receive significant donations from the gambling industry. And one would be naive to think that these donations do not influence politicians in some way. Even worse, prominent ex-politicians such as Mark Abib and Stephen Conroy (Labor) and Helen Coonan (Liberal) act as lobbyists for this pernicious industry. This makes it ever harder for those who wish to expose the evils of this industry to the community. The response from Crown last week should be interpreted in that vein – a letter from a ‘bully’ which like many from big business think they ‘buy’ community support. Full marks to Mr Wilkie, Senator Xenophon and Ms Patten for continuing to raise this issue and to focus the community on thinking of a different way of doing business.
As noted recently in The Conversation, it is ‘difficult to imagine a viable gambling industry without rampant exploitation of the Australian working class underpinning the gambling industry’s massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich lies sophisticated (and sometimes not so sophisticated) propaganda that positions gambling as a form of desirable entertainment on the one hand and a supposed source of economic prosperity on the other.’ (Who wins from ‘Big Gambling’ in Australia? – The Conversation)
So we say to the gambling industry and to the many governments around Australia who benefit from taxing this unhealthy industry – look to the facts – the pain and suffering that gambling causes. Understand that while gambling may benefit the boards and shareholders of the companies engaged in gambling, and benefit governments – surely the enormous cost of having to fund interventions to repair some of the ‘side effects’ of gambling – and its contribution to significantly widening the gap between the rich and poor in Australia – suggests that it is time to take a step back and review the situation.
It is time Australia and our leaders took a stand. Gambling, a tax on the innumerate, is one of the worst excesses of capitalism. These issues are mirrored by similar behaviours by companies engaged in promoting things that do harm in excess, whether they be the sugar industry, fast foods or cigarette manufacturers. And of course the excesses of these industries play into the inequality agenda that is dividing our societies. Leaders are increasingly recognising that these days capitalism does not work for everyone. We need to curb its excesses and put a human face on it.
Prof. Peter Brooks AM FRACP, Centre for Health Policy, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, and Prof. Alex Wodak AM FRACP, Emeritus Consultant, St.Vincent’s Hospital’, Sydney.