PETER BROOKS. Tasmanian Labor takes on the gambling industry

The Tasmanian election on March 3rd will provide a watershed moment in public health not just in Tasmania but for Australia as well.

It will allow ordinary citizens to speak up about the pernicious poker machine industry and the havoc it causes to gamblers and their families and to the economy as a whole.

Australia, and Tasmania in particular, are outliers on the world stage in terms of the number of poker machines we have and the way governments have become dependent on the taxes that flow. But little or no interest is paid by these governments to the much greater social costs of gambling- is it not about time we spoke out.

Tasmania started the fluoridation public health message in 1953 and it can now lead the State and Australia to better health in a different way

IT’S TIME

Something very special is happening in Tasmania, home of good food and wine, a booming tourist industry and unfortunately one of the largest numbers of poker machines per head of population on the planet. Tasmania also has some of the poorest health outcomes of all of the States – something that I feel a deep personal interest in as I commenced my academic medical career in the Department of Medicine at the University of Tasmania in 1975. However in a bold move the Tasmanian Labor Party has decided to support a policy to phase out ‘Pokies’ from pubs and clubs if it wins Government in the March election.

One might say ‘IT’S TIME’.

Only last month a new report from The Australia Institute Tasmania,; reported that Australia – with 0.3% of the worlds’ population – plays ‘host’ to 6% of global conventional gaming machines and 18% of  poker machines. Extraordinarily, we have in this country 75% of the world’s pub and club poker machines. Director of The Australia Institute Tasmania, Leanne Minshull commenting on their report says:

“Tasmania has more pokies than India, Italy and the Netherlands combined, most countries, 226 out of 238, do not have any poker machines in pubs and clubs”.

This is not just a ‘gold medal performance – it is ‘titanium’! But is that what we want to be known for: possibly the greatest ‘losers’ – gambling wise – in the world! Is it not about time we grew up a little and asked ourselves what the result of this ‘titanium‘ medal performance is on our country and how we got there.

“Tasmanian Labor’s policy of getting Poker machines out of Tasmania’s pubs and clubs is not actually a radical step at all but a step towards a global norm. If Tasmania joined WA in banning pub and club poker machines, they would be following the vast majority of the world’s countries.” Minshull said.

Tasmanian Labor leader Rebecca White said she would seize a “once in a generation” opportunity to ban pokies outside casinos if Labor wins the election and it would likely be  a significant public health benefit as well. It might also stimulate the rest of Australia to question the very sad and expensive love affair it has with Pokies.

But how did this happen! The answer is fascinating and anyone who wants to understand the power of the gambling industry must read James Boyce fascinatig book –‘Losing Streak -How Tasmania was gamed by the gambling industry’ –

This book which relies only on documents available on the public record, charts the sad tale of how every government and the majority of politicians in Tasmania have for a period of over 50 years ‘sold out’ to the gambling industry – for a very small amount – and have created a situation where millions of dollars of profits from poker machines (mainly from problem gamblers) have been diverted from public use, through a series of questionable and poorly understood deals.

As the cover of the book states: “Losing Streak is a meticulous, compelling case study in governance failure, which has implications for pokies reform throughout Australia”.

Interestingly if the new government bans  pokies in clubs and pubs it would not be the first major public health ‘coup’ that was started in the ‘Apple Isle’ I well remember as a teenager in 1953 recently arrived from England, seeing the introduction of fluoridation into the water supply of Beaconsfield – a little town in the North of Tasmania which assisted in the creation of the Bill Shorten ‘persona’ when as a young union leader he played a significant role in the Beaconsfield mining tragedy.

It is interesting to see that the usually conservative AMA has already spoken up in support of the Labor party policy describing it as ‘bold and courageous’. Now is the time for other health organisations to follow suit.

Naturally those opposing the proposal have already started telling of the loss of jobs and economic woes that will occur if this goes ahead but hopefully data such as presented in the Conversation last month which emphasised that phasing out Pokies might actually create jobs rather than loose them and the net benefits could be very significant will hold sway.

Tasmanians should look carefully at the data and remember that they have an opportunity to start a conversation about ‘Pokies’ and the damage that they do to many Australians which will not only improve the lot of Tasmanians, but also stimulate a discussion about gambling throughout Australia.

You can make a small wager that the industry will not take this lying down and will use its very powerful lobby (and monies) as was recently discussed in these pages.

In the aftermath of Andrew Wilkies’ comments under Parliamentary Privilege last December, full page ‘advertisments’ appeared in National Newspapers put out as an  ‘Open Letter’ from John Alexander, Executive Chair of Crown Resorts denying any wrongdoing and painting Crown as a paragon of virtue. Interestingly, despite further allegations against Crown aired in the media.  (Oct 24, 2017) there has been no response from the ‘regulator’. Surely we are due for an ‘independent report’.

But back to Tasmania- the election has been called so a  major opportunity for voters to have a say on an issue which has cost Tasmania and Tasmanians billions of dollars over the last 50 years not mention the deaths , sickness and family disruption that has been caused by this pernicious industry.

But also Tasmanians will have a major opportunity to start a conversation which, like the one started by fluoridation in 1953, might just spread right around Australia – what a difference to our great country that would make.

Peter Brooks migrated to Tasmania with his family in 1953, attended (then) Hobart High School and studied first year Medicine at the University of Tasmania before moving to Monash. He returned to Tasmania to work at the Royal Hobart Hospital from 1968-72 and again from 1975 to 1978 as a lecturer in the Department of Medicine at the University of Tasmania. 

He is now Professor, Centre for Health Policy\School of population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne

 

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