Air bags on pokies – Anglican General Synod 2014 Blog 3

Social justice issues are not the core business of Matthias Media and The Briefing. Nevertheless evangelicals are always intereste, nay committed to social justice. In my view, social justice is not the gospel, but one of its fruits.

At the 2014 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia, I had the privilege of moving the following motion on Gambling in Australia. Here are the terms…

This Synod notes the Federal Parliament’s inactivity in terms of responding effectively to the Productivity Commission’s recommendations in its 2010 report into gambling.

Synod grieves for the hundreds of thousands of Australians damaged by pervasive problem gambling throughout our community.

Therefore Synod again urges Federal, State and Territory parliaments to enact effective measures – as recommended by experts independent of the gambling industry – to reduce the impact and incidence of problem gambling, especially via poker machines, but also in the rapidly growing area of online gambling.

In addition, Synod calls on all levels of government to take long-term steps to reduce their reliance on revenue raised by taxation on gambling.

Synod also refers the issue of gambling and associated problems to the Public Affairs Commission for its careful consideration and requests a report in response by the next General Synod.

I’m glad to say the motion passed unanimously. And I’ve been asked to post my speech commending the motion…


Mr President, members of Synod, I move the motion upon the foundational truth that God is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows” (Ps 68:5)

Back in 2010 when we last met, an unusual window of opportunity opened with Andrew Wilkie as part of the federal balance of power securing a deal with the Gillard Government to introduce mandatory pre-commitment, although sadly, they finessed him away from $1 bet limits. For lack of support from other independents, the Gillard Government sent pre-commitment to a difficult-to-implement trial in the ACT which fell over.

That moment has gone. But the problem has not.

And though the federal parliament did nothing at all of an effective nature, I am pleased that some people have not given up on harm minimization for problem gambling. For example, the Greens have brought legislation for $1 bet limits in Victoria, a rare time for my agreement with them.

We should not give up on change. We should keep the pressure on. Because so many Australians are damaged by problem gambling

Prevalence studies suggest that 0.7% of us of adult population currently has a serious gambling problem and another 1.7 % of adults are at moderate risk. These figures alone put the problem into the hundreds of thousands. Some argue this prevalence rate looks small. However, the Productivity Commission says,

“to put these figures in context, only around 0.15 % of the population are admitted to hospital each year for traffic accidents. Small population prevalence rates do not mean small problems for society.”

Even though car accident hospitalization occurs at a rate 5 times lower than problem gambling, we approve all sorts of limits on our roads. Seat belts, speed limits, speed cameras.

We need to put air bags and seat belts on poker machines! …But harm minimization measures recommended by experts independent of vested interests. Because vested gambling interests in the pubs and clubs will not act against their profit motive. So they should not be allowed to dominate the debate about what measures are tried in this area.

What damage is caused by the pokies?

Poker machines are supposedly entertainment options for patrons: a harmless amusement. As currently configured, however, they produce significant harm for 30% of regular users. And 40% of pokie profits come from this relatively small number of problem gamblers. This is highly inconsistent with their supposed purpose.

In fact, the revenue – revenue, note, not turnover – the revenue made across Australia, from club and pub poker machines is $11 billion per annum; that’s 54%, of our total annual gambling losses of $20.5 billion.

This is a staggering amount of money, especially when we note that machines are mostly concentrated in our most disadvantaged suburbs.

But the impact of problem gambling hits far more than the one percent or so with problems. Each problem gambler impacts terribly on his or her family, and other close relationships. This is where many Anglican ministers see the damage. I can say from first hand observation, it is heart-rending. The Productivity Commission says (p16 Overview):

The harms from problem gambling include suicide, depression, relationship breakdown, lowered work productivity, job loss, bankruptcy and crime. For example, a 2008 survey found that gambling was the most common motivation for fraud and that the average loss was $1.1 million per incident. Moreover, the rough counts of people directly affected ignores the ‘ripple effects’ of problem gambling. For each problem gambler, several others are affected — including family members, friends, employers and colleagues. A recent Tasmanian survey found that 50 per cent of people said they personally knew someone who was experiencing serious problems with gambling and around 13 per cent of people identified at least one family member with a serious problem.

What could be done?

The Productivity Commission’s recommendations focused on the pokies, although they also recommend other measures to do with the advertising of gambling and internet gambling. Here are some key recommendations:

  • Limits on gambling advertising for TV, and at sports venues, especially where children are watching.
  • Restrict credit that can be fed into machines at any time to a low maximum! (PC Rec. 11.2)
  • Locate ATMs in venues away from gaming areas with clearly visible warnings and low maximum cash withdrawal limit. (PC Rec. 13.2)
  • Enforce shut down period for gaming machines in all venues no later than 2am and for at least 6 hours duration (PC Rec. 14.1).
  • Most of all – reduce bet limit on all EGMs to $1! (PC Rec. 11.1)

$1 bet limits are an incredibly easy reform to implement (unlike mandatory pre-commitment). Poker machine regulation is also the area that the state governments can address most directly (unlike online matters or advertising standards, which are primarily federal issues).

The $1 bet was also proposed both by the Tasmanian and Federal Parliament’s Select Committees into gambling reform. Ironically, I believe the original evidence for $1 bets in an Australian context even came from a study funded by the NSW gambling industry.

We must take the long view. Seeing reductions in problem gambling will be a multi-factorial approach, won in incremental steps, and responding continuously to new fronts. I like the analogy of the fight against the tobacco companies. It was long and hard and is only being won step by step, not in one big victory. But the $1 bet limit is a good place to start.

Friends, I find this such a big issue that I have abandoned my lifelong support for the once-mighty Parramatta Eels, because they put a gambling company as a sponsor on their jerseys and I refuse to support a team that flog jerseys with such messages to impressionable little kids.

Why not write to your local federal and state parliamentarians to ask them to support the PC’s recommendations, and especially to implement compulsory pre-commitment. We must also indicate we will support measures to raise revenues for important services from other sources.

I also urge Christians, who are members of registered clubs to write to the club board members, or to stand at their AGM and ask those Board members what effective steps – as recommended by independent experts (and not from research paid for by gambling industry) – are they taking to ensure that problem gambling is reduced in their club?

In Proverbs 31:9, King Lemuel’s mother commanded him, “Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” This is the will of God. I commend the motion.

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