The following article by Sue Neales was published in The Mercury on 24 July 2010. It is an exceptional analysis of the impact of problem gambling on Tasmanian society, but is relevant to every state in this country.
Article Courtesy of Sue Neales and The Mercury, Hobart
BUCK-PASSING between state and federal governments has become a highly sophisticated art form.
Unfortunately, the public hears or observes it so often that we have almost become inured to its insidiousness.
Whether it is called buck-passing, blame-shifting or name-calling, the result is still the same.
Every time it occurs, a policy issue of significant importance to the community ends up being ignored, delayed or not dealt with by either tier of government.
Worse still, often both governments appear complicit in the delays.
Usually the reason is that one government or sometimes both stands to benefit financially from delays in taking action or changing policy.
As long as discussion papers, proposal documents, funding requests or the ubiquitous reviews and committee reports are circulating within the bureaucracies and ministerial offices of both state and federal governments, the argument can always be put that something, however slowly, is being done.
Government by avoidance would probably be a more apt description.
The damage being caused to Australians by poker machines is a perfect example.
Tasmania’s courts are the ideal venue for anyone wanting to find evidence of the tragedy and crime that results from poker-machine addiction.
In the past few months alone, appearing before the Magistrates Court has been:
Moonah chef Christopher Harvey, who stole $1100 from the staff footy tipping account to blow on the pokies in just one hour.
Pizza delivery man Mathew Royce Cooper, who trafficked marijuana alongside his pizzas, making more than $60,000 in a year to feed his poker-machine addiction.
Former football boss Noel Laurence Morrison, who stole $55,000 from employer AFL Tasmania because of a gambling addiction.
Who too could forget the terrible stabbing murder of fit and active grandmother, Barbara Risby, returning in broad daylight to her car on the Hobart Domain after an afternoon cruise in May 2007?
When her killer Mark John Adams was convicted in March last year, he chillingly told the Supreme Court he had planned to commit a robbery (resulting in the murder of Mrs Risby) after blowing the “grocery money” that morning playing poker machines in Hobart hotels.
In the past five years, 41 people have appeared before the Tasmanian Supreme Court charged over gambling-related thefts and burglaries involving $6.8 million.
The largest theft was $4.5 million and the smallest $539.
The cost to the Tasmanian taxpayer to jail the offenders was $3.8 million, or an average of $263 a person a day.
But the broader community anecdotally knows the cost of “playing the pokies” is much higher than that.
It is officially estimated that 0.54 per cent of the Tasmanian population, or about 2750 adults, are classed as “problem gamblers”.
The vast majority are addicted to the 3680 poker machines found in Tasmanian pubs and clubs, all owned and operated under a monopoly licence issued by the State Government to the Federal Group.
The recent report on gambling from the national Productivity Commission calculated 40 per cent of all money wasted on poker machines was gambled away by addicts.
In Tasmania, $224 million is lost every year on the pokies.
And that’s not the total amount fed into the machines – it’s even higher – but the difference between the amount paid into every machine, minus any earnings paid back to betters. That equates to $600,000 a day straight into the pockets of the Federal Group and its majority owners, the Farrell family, before taxes.
And, if the statistics are right, about $250,000 a day of those losses have come from the few Tasmanians addicted to the so-called one-armed bandits.
That money has to come from somewhere.
In the first instance, it consumes pay packets, welfare benefits and family savings.
As numerous studies have already proven, including Anglicare Tasmania’s soul-searching report on gambling addiction “Nothing Left to Lose” early this year, there is no disputing the social distress and financial damage caused by poker-machine addiction.
There’s financial ruin for a start. Job loss when the addict’s urge to gamble at the local pub overcomes a working ethos.
Bank accounts raided, “rainy day” money jars emptied, social welfare benefits to help feed and raise the kids plundered.
In turn, that means not enough money left in the household kitty to buy food, pay the heating bills or cover the cost of school books and uniforms. Holidays, even “luxuries” such as the baby’s nappies or a bus fare to town, are out of the question.
Debts mount, bills are left unpaid. That in turn leads to family breakdown, child neglect, even suicide.
For every gambling addict an estimated five to 10 direct family members are grievously affected.
That’s close to 30,000 men, women and children in the Tasmanian community battling to keep their head above water financially, mentally and socially because of a poker-machine addict in the family.
Not to mention thousands of others affected whose partners, sons, daughters, parents, brothers and sisters are in deep strife from gambling debts, but whose plight is kept private and below the radar of the courts and welfare groups.
But less clear, until now, from formal studies although anecdotal and court evidence would appear convincing enough has been evidence proving an irrefutable link between crime and poker machines.
The question for criminologists has always been: are criminals who commit thefts, burglaries and robberies more prone to be poker-machine addicts or as the community has always contended does a gambling addiction and the debt-strewn trail it leaves cause desperate people to rob others, including their employers, for money to feed their addiction?
A new Victorian study seems finally to have provided the answer.
Commissioned by the Brumby Government and conducted by University of South Australia researchers, the report found a significant relationship between spending on poker machines and the incidence of crime in Victoria.
The central finding of the report was “strong and robust evidence” of a significant link between gaming expenditure and crime, in particular “income-generating” crimes such as theft, robbery, fraud and handling stolen goods.
The report analysed police data from different areas of Victoria from 1996-2006 and tried to isolate the impact of average poker-machine spending per person, from other influences on crimes, such as socio-economic and demographic characteristics of a district or rural town.
It concluded that only drug use or drug addiction had a stronger link to causing crime than poker machines.
“In our models, it was gaming expenditure causing changes in crime rates, and not the other way around,” the report concludes.
“This indicates that the causal relationship runs from increased gaming to increased crime, rather than the other way round.”
The same researchers had already found in South Australia in 2008 that local crime rates for thefts, robberies and burglaries were higher in suburbs and towns where gambling expenditure per adult was greater.
It followed earlier studies that have proved:
Adults spend more money on the pokies in poorer and less educated suburbs and towns.
Communities with a high rate of volunteering – and presumably a better community feel have less money lost on poker machines.
More poker-machine venues and the more pokies per suburb results in more money spent per adult.
The immediate response of the Victorian Government to its own report linking crime to poker machines was intriguing.
First it buried the report and its explosive findings without acknowledgement or fanfare in obscurity on a government departmental website when it was received last month.
On Thursday, when the report claiming “strong and robust links” between crime and pokies losses was publicised, a Victorian Government spokeswoman claimed the findings were “complex” and needed to be studied further.
The Tasmanian Government has taken a rather similar approach whenever concerns about the social and financial harm caused by poker machines are raised.
Just last month, Treasurer Michael Aird claimed in parliamentary estimates hearings that it was impossible for the state to alone impose the $1 bet limit on poker machines recommended by the Productivity Commission to reduce losses by gamblers.
“We will work with the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions to get to a $1 limit but that will be through a process established by the Commonwealth we think that’s sensible,” Mr Aird said.
Yet the Federal Government has said it thinks the issue is one for the states to address.
It will not act to limit poker machine bets to $1. Nor will it restrict to $20 the amount a player can pour into a single machine.
All it has promised is to work with the states to establish a new system allowing gamblers to set voluntary limits on the amount they intend to spend in a gambling session.
Both reactions are undoubtedly driven by pragmatic self-interest.
Most state governments rely on gambling taxes to provide one-tenth of all state-obtained revenue.
In this year’s State Budget Tasmania will receive $92million from gambling taxes from a total state taxation revenue base of $875 million.
The federal Labor Party is complicit in the failure to tackle pokies spending and the corollary harm.
It directly owns and runs four major club venues filled with pokies in Canberra, including the vast Canberra Labor Club with its 60,000 members.
The money they plough into poker machines is directly paying for some of the Labor Party’s lavish advertising during the current federal election.
Small wonder that so little is being done about the problem.
But if crime is directly related to poker machines vanquishing the oft-heard arguments by industry players that it is just another entertainment choice surely the State Government cannot twiddle its thumbs much longer?
Investigating crimes such as burglary, thefts and robberies commands enormous amounts of police time and resources.
Surely questions must be asked. Are the police costs of tackling and investigating crimes irrefutably caused by poker-machine addiction now outweighing the tax benefits returned by gambling to the state’s coffers?
Add in too the cost of caring for offenders who end up in jails because of their poker-machine addictions. Or children who end up in state care because of family breakdown caused by uncontrolled gambling.
But even that simplistic financial cost-benefit approach ignores the endless pain and suffering to law-abiding citizens who have their homes broken into, their bags snatched or their faces bashed in a snap robbery because of the lure of poker machines.
And it fails to even start to calculate the impact on society of broken marriages, lost jobs, child neglect, mental anguish and suicide.