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Sad Facts about Gambling

Monday, 6 August 2012  | Brent Lyons-Lee

We’ve had Pokies in Victoria for twenty years this year. In 1992 I was still at school and blissfully unaware of Joan Kirner’s decision to open up Victoria to pokies. In 1996 I did my year 12 geography assignment looking at the potential impact of Pokies on my local community after a hotel had made an application to install them. I’m not sure I was overly interested in the topic; but I was prompted by my teacher to explore this issue as he knew I had a growing passion for justice issues. It wasn’t until the next year (1997) when Crown Casino officially opened, that I really became aware of what was at stake.


I was intrigued by the audacity of a Baptist Minister who took on a Premier that was attempting to imbed gambling as “entertainment” in Victoria. Tim Costello confronted Jeff Kennett on his use of religious language when Kennett declared that Crown was the new “spirit of Victoria” and a “beacon of hope”. Costello was called a ‘wowser’ and was told in no uncertain terms to return to his pulpit and keep out of the affairs of state. Thank goodness he didn’t.


By the time Crown was officially launched in 1997, Costello had marshalled many troops to oppose this creeping normalisation of gambling in Victoria. He along with other concerned community groups and churches launched an outright attack on the government and the industry because of the destruction that was being caused in lives of thousands of people.


The Victorian InterChurch Gambling Taskforce was established in 1996 by the Heads of Churches in Victoria. I’ve been the Baptist representative on this group since 2005, so I’m a newcomer! The thing that first struck me about joining this taskforce was just how complex the policy and politics were; and how quickly the goal posts can change. There have been significant changes in the gambling industry and its regulatory environment and a number of ‘wins’ or reforms in my time that have increased community awareness and harm minimisation measures for gamblers.


There was a Productivity Commission Inquiry in 1999 because of community concern and a subsequent Productivity Commission Report released on 23 June 2010. It found that Pokies were still the biggest issue for problem gamblers in Australia. The key recommendations of the report were:

  • A more coherent and effective policy approach is needed, with targeted policies that can effectively address the high rate of problems experienced by those playing gaming machines regularly.
  • The amount of cash that players can feed into machines at any one time should be limited to $20 (currently up to $10 000).
  • There are strong grounds to lower the bet limit to around $1 per 'button push', instead of the current $5-10.
  • Shutdown periods for gaming in hotels and clubs are too brief and mostly occur at the wrong times. They should commence earlier and be of longer duration.
  • There should be a progressive move over the next six years to full 'pre-commitment' systems that allow players to set binding limits on their losses.
  • Problem gambling counselling services have worked well overall. But there is a need for enhanced training and better service coordination.[1]


You’ll notice that many of these recommendations have been adopted by politicians and lobbyists since the report was handed down. Most notably, a National Churches Gambling Taskforce has been created to support reforms at a national level. Federal independents Nick Xenophon and Andrew Wilkie have also provided strong leadership on this issue and have campaigned long and hard for legislative reform in line with the independent productivity commission report.


Andrew Wilkie had a much publicised agreement with Prime Minister Gillard to support her minority government in return for passing legislation to limit the harm of pokies. She has since ‘back flipped’ on this agreement after pressure from a relentless campaign led by the gambling industry.


The worst part of this sad history is that it is estimated that a staggering 40% of the revenue comes from people with gambling problems.[2] The Saturday Age on July 14 revealed that punter losses on the pokies from July 1992 to the end of June 2011 totalled $37.9 billion. The beneficiaries…the state government, Tabcorp, Tatts, Woolworths and AFL clubs. Some crumbs did fall towards community groups via the community support fund but the cost far outweighs the benefit.


There is much evidence and research in Australia to suggest that excessive gambling, especially on gaming machines, has led to considerable social problems. Relationship breakdown leading to divorce and significant domestic violence is a major concern with 13% of people in counselling for problem gambling (or one in eight) reporting domestic or other violent incidents related to their gambling.[3]


Suicide is also a major problem linked to problem gambling, but due to the sensitive nature there is not much recorded evidence. Blaszczynski and Farrell documented 44 examples of gambling related suicides in Victoria occurring between 1990 and 1997, in which the State Coroner identified the presence of a presumed gambling problem. Most were male, with an average median age of 40 years, unemployed, and from a lower socioeconomic background.[4]

A report commissioned by the Victorian Department of Justice, released in October 2010 showed a strong positive correlation between gambling and crime. It found that gambling is actually second only to drug offences as a predictor of crime within a local area. Gaming expenditure per capita is significantly positively associated with nearly every type of crime in all years of the analysis, with research showing that up to 70 per cent of problem gamblers may commit offences.[5]

It has been twenty years since Kirner’s decision, one I know she regrets, and the evidence is in…we need serious reforms to protect those vulnerable to gambling addiction and a panacea for the biggest addict of all… the state governments. Unfortunately the pokies issue may just be a ‘drop in the ocean’ when we look at the rising ‘online gambling’ issue on the horizon.


 Rev Brent Lyons-Lee works with the Baptist Union of Victoria and is the Baptist representative on the Victorian Interchurch Gambling Taskforce.


Blaszczynski, A., and Farrell, E. (1998)   “A case series of 44 completed gambling-related suicides,” Journal of Gambling Studies 14, 93-109.

Productivity Commission (1999)   “Australia’s Gambling Industries”, Report No. 10, Canberra.

Productivity Commission (2010)   “Gambling”, Report No. 50, Canberra

Wheeler, S., et al (2010)   ‘The Relationship Between Crime and gaming Expenditure in Victoria’, Centre for regulation and Market Analysis, School of Commerce, University of South Australia. Published by the Department of Justice, Victoria

[1] Productivity Commission (2010)

[2] Productivity Commission (2010)

[3] Productivity Commission (1999)

[4] A. Blaszczynski and E. Farrell (1998)

[5] Wheeler, S., et al (2010)

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