auditor-general tells doj, vcgr to shape up

Victoria’s Auditor-General tabled a report in state parliament today. The report was a performance audit on Taking Action on Problem Gambling, a strategy drawn up in 2006 to tackle problem gambling. TAoPG was to be jointly implemented by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation (VCGR).

I’ve read the audit report, and you know what? It’s a surprisingly good read, at least when you compare it to reports released by the VCGR and the Productivity Commission… but I digress.

The audit’s primary aim was “to assess whether the strategy has reduced the level of problem gambling-related harm.” Unfortunately, the audit found that it couldn’t effectively assess whether or not the strategy was working, because the DOJ and the VCGR had fallen down on the job. There was little or no evidence that the initiatives in the strategy would work, little or no evaluation of the initiatives over time, little or no monitoring or assessment processes… little or no anything, really.

This is extremely disappointing, because a lack of evidence is one of the main reasons we keep hearing as to why other initiatives aren’t rolled out. The Productivity Commission’s recent recommendations, for example, such as the $1 cap and restricting note acceptors to $10 notes, were pushed aside because there was no evidence they would work, and they needed further evaluation. The TAoPG strategy was the perfect opportunity to build this kind of evidence, yet it was poorly managed and evaluated from day one.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: the audit report is NOT saying that these problem gambling strategies are NOT working… it’s only saying that they can’t be assessed one way or the other. The fault for that lies squarely with the DOJ and the VCGR… the two organisations we depend upon to implement and uphold problem gambling strategies, and properly assess any potential impacts of gambling to the community.

As if this isn’t clear enough, the audit report drives this message home in its recommendations. There are seven recommendations in total; three are actions the DOJ should take to improve their performance, and the other four are actions the VCGR should take to improve their day-to-day operations, in particular the way they assess the economic and social impact of poker machines.

There’s not one recommendation concerning the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the problem gambling strategy… and that’s because it’s not the strategy that’s the problem. It’s the organisations implementing it that have stuffed up.

For the record: I believe that the initiatives put in place over the past few years to combat problem gambling in Victoria, while generally worthwhile, have been largely ineffective. Cosmetic, even, to a large degree. Most of them fail to address the reasons why problem gambling behaviors develop in the first place, and concentrate instead on damage control… but that’s a story for another day.

Ultimately, if you take one thing away from this post, let it be this: the Auditor-General’s report is nothing more than a slap to the head for the DOJ and the VCGR, for their inefficiency and lack of process. Hopefully they take this on board, because we need strong, independent organisations assessing, evaluating and shaping our gambling industry. Without that, the problems will never go away.

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