Problem gambling is a tragedy that affects the lives of many Australians. It is a significant factor in mental health problems, marriage breakups, homelessness, domestic violence, suicide and even murder.
Prompted by a nurse’s curiosity over what tipped patients into crisis, a program at The Alfred Hospital found that 17% of suicidal patients seen by the hospital’s emergency department were problem gamblers.
According to figures released by the Victorian coroner in 2013, gambling addiction was a contributing factor in 128 suicides and two murders in Victoria over the past decade. The true figure is no doubt much higher, and that’s only one state.
In 2010 the Productivity Commission’s report into Australia’s gambling industry estimated that Australians lost about $19 billion per year gambling, and that much of this — some 41 per cent, in the case of poker machines — came from problem gamblers.
They recommended that by 2016 (or 2018 for smaller venues) all poker machines be limited to $1 per button-push, the imposition of ATM limits, and fitting of machines with pre-commitment technology.
When Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie made poker machine reform a condition for his support to form minority government, Julia Gillard broadly accepted his reform agenda, which sent the gambling industry into overdrive, targeting MPs in marginal seats and club members and employees with their “It’s Un-Australian” campaign.
Very quickly, the $1 limit was scrapped. The other two measures were adopted as part of a watered down National Gambling Reform Act which was passed by the Gillard government in late 2012.
Enter the Abbott government.
In what can only be described as a blatant capitulation to the power of the pokies lobby, Social Services Minister Kevin Andrews chose to repeal these harm-minimisation measures as one of his first acts on assuming office.
One might wonder why, with the avalanche of evidence showing the harm problem gambling causes to so many Australians, the man charged with protecting our most vulnerable considered this a priority. The answer may have something to do with the donations received.
Most industries tend to cluster their donations around federal elections, when parties are hungriest for cash. Not so for the poker machine industry. There was a clear and dramatic spike in late 2010.
Unusually, it did not come before polling day, as is the usual pattern with donations. The federal election in August registered just a small bump in donations.
However by September, when most other business donors had tapered down their election gift-giving the figures for the poker machine industry began to swell.
The AHA gave more than $235,000 that month. Then a similar amount in October. And then a whopping, half-a-million dollar Christmas bonus in December. ClubsNSW also gave with unprecedented generosity over the period, handing out nearly $200,000 in November 2010.
Together, they gave more than $1.3 million in donations for the final quarter of the year. By an overwhelming margin these were directed at the Coalition.
In 2009, some years after he had left the organisation, former ClubsNSW chief executive Mark Fitzgibbon admitted that ClubsNSW’s political fundraising largesse had a distinct purpose.
“There was absolutely the view that supporting fundraising helped our ability to influence people,” Fitzgibbon told The Australian newspaper.
“We did support political party fundraising, which was a legitimate activity, and it certainly assisted us in gaining access,” he said.
Which brings me to Joe Hockey and the North Sydney Forum whose members, in exchange for thousands of dollars, gain privileged access to the treasurer.
Despite Mr Hockey’s recent claims that the NSF was a “chamber of commerce for North Sydney”, the organisation has many members who are not based in North Sydney, including the AHA and Fortune Corporation, a New Zealand owned and operated gaming industry company.
Then there’s the Millenium Forum. This is the group responsible for the fundraising for Liberal Party Federal election campaigns, including that of Prime Minister Tony Abbott.
Paul Nicolau, who has recently appeared before ICAC, is not only the head of the Millenium Forum, he is also the NSW chief executive of the Australian Hotels Association.
And then we have Woolworths who, aside from selling groceries, are huge owners of poker machines in Australia. They also donate hundreds of thousands to political parties.
During his election campaign, Tony Abbott held many press conferences from within Woolworths stores.
Simon Berger, former head of political relations at Woolworths, infamously donated a jacket made of chaff bags for auction at a Young Liberals fundraiser in a reference to shockjock Alan Jones’ comments encouraging the assassination of our then Prime Minister.
After public outrage, Berger was dumped by Woolworths, only to be employed by Tony Abbott to head what has been called a “secret political hit squad” attacking Abbott’s political foes. As reported by Malcolm Farr, the under-the-radar Coalition Advisory Service supplies Government backbenchers with media information and ammunition to aim at the Labor Opposition. It is a taxpayer funded body which has offices in Parliament House. Mr Berger has a staff of at least six but a potential allocation of 10 who are paid from $75,000 to $175,000 a year and so far have been issued laptops and mobile telephones worth a total of close to $22,000.
It is undeniably apparent that the gambling industry exerts undue influence over this government’s policy making who, in so many areas, seem more beholden to their donors than their constituents.
50 total views, 2 views today