In the two years or more that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with being told what to think. Wherever there’s a group, an organisation, even just a person with a vested interest in pushing their version of the truth and an outlet to emphasise that position, there’s inevitably a constant stream of bias and misdirection, agenda and spin, all designed to keep the wheels turning in the same manner and direction that they’ve always done.
It’s not just the gambling industry. Witness the reaction to Julia Gillard’s speech last week, itself born partially out of frustration with the persistent sexism permeating our parliament; while her words struck a popular chord and were globally acclaimed, our local press served up near-uniform disapproval and condemnation.
Or witness the efforts of Qantas last year when, having grounded their fleet and shut down their airline in an act of pure petulance, chief executive Alan Joyce placed the blame for his decision on the actions of his employees. It was a mantra he would repeat loudly and often.
Still, it can’t be denied that the gambling industry, and especially Australia’s poker machine industry, is pretty much in a league of their own when it comes to shading the truth and rewriting the script. Proposed reforms are “experimental technology” and the politicians who supported them are “zealots” and “prohibitionists”. Watered down compromises are hailed as “true reforms” and all other measures are described as “silver bullet solutions”. Clubs are the “fabric of society” and are apparently the only institutions that really want to help problem gamblers (never poker machine addicts, it’s always problem gamblers). And the gamblers themselves? They’re the ones ruining it for the millions of Australians who love a punt.
Give me a break.
While there is a vast array of catchphrases and buzzwords used by the industry to drive their agenda home, there is one in particular that has always grated on me. It’s not “nanny state” or “un-Australian”; it’s not even “Australians love to gamble”. No, it’s a phrase that gets trotted out regularly and while it has been dormant for much of this year (not surprising given the collapse of the heavily-opposed reforms), it was dusted off again last week after the Joint Senate Committee Report into the Prevention and Treatment of Problem Gambling was published.
Two little words, yet they can slant the debate like no other. You have to believe us, they say, it’s common sense. No one can argue with common sense.
Here’s just a few examples of what Australia’s clubs industry, responsible for well over half of the country’s poker machines, thinks about common sense.
“Clubs Australia advocates a common sense and proven approach to assisting problem gamblers.”
Won’t Work Will Hurt and It’s Un-Australian campaign websites.
“Clubs Australia issued a statement to our member clubs and the media supporting the Government response and saying it was a victory for common sense, recognising that there is no silver bullet to problem
Clubs Australia President Peter Newell’s National Press Club Address, 23/3/2011, about the government’s initial refusal to act on the 2010 Productivity Commission report.
“Common sense, and now the Salvation Army, says you don’t help a problem gambler by giving them a gambling card. To invoke a law to control the urge of a compulsive gambler is nonsense.”
Clubs Australia Chief Executive Anthony Ball, Clubs Australia media release, 1/9/2011.
“Mandatory pre-commitment simply won’t work. Common sense says you don’t help a problem gambler by giving them a card to continue their destructive gambling addiction.”
Anthony Ball, Clubs Australia media release, 15/9/2011.
“We will focus most tightly in marginal seats. If MPs choose to vote for mandatory pre-commitment, as Andrew Wilkie wants them to do, then I can see clubs across the country reacting very poorly to that. We will continue our campaign until common sense prevails – be that before the election or after the next election.”
Anthony Ball on their anti-reform campaign, AFR, 14/10/2011.
“It’s common sense that the problem gambler will be first in line for a licence and will set unrealistically high limits.”
Anthony Ball, Clubs Australia media release, 21/10/2011.
“This is why clubs will continue to campaign against the expensive and experimental mandatory pre-commitment until common-sense prevails.”
Anthony Ball, Clubs Australia media release, 7/12/2011.
“We will continue to put our message out there until common sense prevails.”
Anthony Ball opposing STL, 20/1/2012.
Get the picture? It’s pretty clear that Clubs Australia’s perception of common sense has more to do with dollars and cents than anything else.
But the latest incantation of “common sense” takes a different angle. Responding to the latest Senate report, and a proposal to make poker machine venues more liable and responsible in situations where self-excluded gamblers continue to try and play poker machines, Clubs Australia spokesman Jeremy Bath countered by saying it would be better to extend the program to allow “concerned family members” to exclude problem gamblers. He said:
“Common sense says the person who is best able to detect a gambling problem is the person who knows you best, and that is always going to be a close family member.”
And this is what has got me furious.
We’ve all known people with gambling problems, or read the news stories about the money lost, the crimes committed, the lives ruined. And the common thread to all of these stories?
“I didn’t know.”
“How could I have missed it?”
“I just didn’t see it.”
“How could I have been so blind?”
“I trusted him/her, and they let me down.”
“I didn’t know anything was wrong.”
“I never saw it coming.”
“I didn’t know.”
The sad, sad truth of the matter is that love is blind. So often our loved ones don’t see the warning signs because they’re not looking for them. They believe the lies because they want to, they need to… they have no reason not to. The little things, tell-tale signs that are glaringly obvious in hindsight, get lost in the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
I was in a stable relationship for all of the three years that I was addicted to poker machines. For much of that time, we were engaged. I lived in constant, daily fear of discovery and to my shame, I became one of the most accomplished liars I have ever known. But there were clues, hints, signs that things were not as they seemed. I could see them, I was sure that sooner or later my partner would too.
Right up until the day that everything came crashing down, she never suspected a thing.
That is the reality. Our family members, our friends and loved ones, are often too close to see what is going on. More than that, they don’t want to. Having a partner, a parent, a child with a gambling problem doesn’t fit in with how we see our lives; it’s a reality that, once seen, cannot be unseen. So we ignore it, sometimes blindly, sometimes desperately, for as long as we can.
I’m not opposing this suggestion, not at all… but to throw the responsibility back not just to the gambler, but to their families, and then call it common sense is a bridge too far.
Common sense? If common sense were a reality then we would have no poker machine industry at all. Who in their right mind would waste even one dollar on a machine that can’t be influenced, can’t be swayed and is designed to win?
If common sense were a reality then the industry would admit that they target low-income areas because that’s where the money is, rather than waffling on about demographics and profit margins.
If common sense were a reality then the hundreds upon hundreds of poker machine venues in Australia would be falling over themselves to offer a safer, more responsible product, one where the chances of fostering addiction are greatly reduced.
If common sense were a reality… then I would no longer need to write this blog. Sadly, I can’t see myself stopping any time soon.