BY EVAN ELLIS
Father Chris Riley’s decision to back Clubs Australia’s campaign against the Federal Government’s proposed poker machine reforms has surprised many. The smiling face of the Youth off the Streets founder will now adorn the signature green, gold and white flyers of the Clubs and Pubs campaign.
After the shock wore off, I found the candour refreshing. Here was a man disagreeing with the proposed changes and nailing his colours to the mast – a healthy starting point for debate if ever there was.
Also, in terms of speaking with credibility about the darker realities of our communities, few can match his experience. His name has become a byword for hope in often hopeless situations; someone who saves lives by transforming them.
Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to agree with him on this.
On the flyer he is quoted as saying “I’ve witnessed problem gambling in the community and I believe the only way to treat it is through counselling and education.”
It’s a fair point. In Western Sydney the Church, through its social service agency CatholicCare, provides problem gambling counselling and outreach services to the entire community. Their counsellors have countless stories of lives transformed and freedom regained – all without pre-commitment technology.
The clincher in the statement is “the only way”. I suspect it’s a turn of phrase more than anything else but prioritising counselling and education shouldn’t close us off from seeking structural change.
Pokies are big business. Indeed the surest bet in the murky world of pokies is that governments will continue to do well off them- whatever happens.
However, the community does not. There are an estimated 115,000 problem gamblers. Not a massive figure in a country of 22 million you might think. Yet of the $12 billion lost each year on gaming machines a massive 40 percent comes out of the pockets of problem gamblers. Problem gamblers are givers.
And they’re giving till it hurts. The social cost of problem gambling – relationship breakdown, mental health issues, unemployment, debt and financial hardship, theft and social isolation – is estimated to be at least $4.7 billion a year.
As if this wasn’t bad enough a recent Government study in Victoria suggested that poker machines are the second highest cause of crime in the community after drugs. The authors argue:
“That higher expenditure on gaming machines in a local area leads to an increase in crime ... problem gamblers tend to gamble in areas close to their home or workplace and that criminal behaviour as a result of problem gambling is based on opportunity rather than being planned, and is thus more likely to occur in the same area as the gambling took place.”
Sadly, clubs and pubs are benefitting from this setup, whether deliberately or not. The tremendous good they do is intertwined in a business model that exploits a vulnerable minority.
While Father Chris is right to be worried that changes might threaten jobs or cut funding to charities (although a leaked industry estimate put the projected drop in gaming revenues at 10-20%, half the figures publicly cited by Clubs Australia) the harm caused by pokies, including unemployment, is happening now).
Faced with an addiction, your average problem gambler is in political quicksand. With every punt, they boost the government’s taxation revenue, fund self interested lobby groups and pay their club for more gaming machines.
Arrayed against this trinity, treating individuals in isolation isn’t enough. We, not just problem gamblers, have a problem. We, as a society, need a response.
Pre-commitment technology is just one such example. In a world obsessed with making a buck it tells any gambler, even if through the mild inconvenience of setting it all up, that we don’t just want their money but their welfare (and by extension their family and community’s welfare) as well.
Perhaps that’s why Clubs Australia changed the ‘Its Un-Australian’ slogan to ‘Won’t work. Will hurt.’ Pre-commitment exemplifies the Aussie ideal of mateship; it’s the policy equivalent of telling someone not to overdo it, a technology that would reveal us to be a society more concerned with our mates than their money.
Father Chris is right to point to education and counselling but pre-commitment technology, notwithstanding the challenges in implementing in, should not be readily discarded.
Evan Ellis is Social Justice Coordinator for the Diocese of Parramatta.
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