We need stricter measures to curb this gambling madness

Nick Xenophon - Independent Senator for South Australia

October 22, 2009

It's always best to have a fence at the top of a cliff than the world's best equipped ambulance at its base.

Preventing harm is always better than treating it, which is why yesterday's Productivity Commission draft report into gambling represents such a breakthrough in thinking.

For more than a decade state governments and the poker machine industry have pointed to programs that supposedly help problem gamblers after they develop a gambling problem – the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach.

But the Productivity Commission rightly points out the madness of this approach. The commission effectively argues that poker machines are a dangerous product and they need to be regulated and made safer.

I support the move to limit the maximum bet on any spin to $1 and will be introducing a Private Senators Bill next week designed to bring this change in immediately. The Bill will also seek to slow spin rates down and reduce the return to player periods to ensure problem gamblers cannot lose large amounts of money gambling.

I also support the commission's call for a comprehensive national pre-commitment scheme that would allow players to decide how much they are going to gamble before they gamble.

But I am concerned about the recommendation that some gamblers may be allowed to opt out of this system. For a system to work, it needs to be compulsory.

We don't have optional seatbelts, why should this safety measure be optional?

In a perfect world, there would be no poker machines, but in the absence of an outright ban I believe Australia can learn a lot from Norway, where they have introduced comprehensive measures to tackle problem gambling.

In Norway, machines are only accessible to pre-registered users via a pre-paid card. Individual gambling losses are limited to about $100 a day and $485 a month.

Machines do not take cash or credit cards and smart card are used to automatically impose a 10-minute cooling off period after one hour of continuous gambling by an individual.

The industry will claim it will cost too much to retro-fit machines. The same arguments were used about paying for seatbelt and air-bag technology.

My response is simply, if you want the machines to stay legal, make them safer.

There are companies in Australia that have the technology using smart cards or usb sticks with bio-metric id, which are non-transferable, to ensure no one can gamble beyond a pre-set limit. These changes can be made right now with little fuss.

In the past, when the poker machine industry has sought to argue against any changes, they have claimed that any restriction is an affront to freedom, and that players are exercising free will.

It's an absurd position. Addicts aren't exercising free will, they are feeding an addiction created by the very presence of poker machines in our community.

Half of poker machine profits come from problem gamblers. This is an industry without a sustainable business case. It's unsustainable unless it is allowed to exploit the addicted. And for each problem gambler seven others are affected.

In relation to online gambling, I am concerned by the Productivity Commission's recommendations that we legalise the practice and attempt to regulate it in order to minimise harm, under a scheme of "managed liberalisation".

But didn't we try and do that with poker machines, and look how that turned out.

As my good friend, World Vision chief executive Tim Costello, has said before, with online gambling you can lose your house without ever leaving it.

We don't need more opportunities for people to lose money. That said, I think we are seeing a shift in thinking.

People are starting to realise just how damaging this industry is. Even before the last election Kevin Rudd said he hated poker machines and he knew something of the harm they caused to families. I would call on the Prime Minister to act now.

Twelve years ago, when I ran for and won, an upper house seat in the South Australian State Parliament on an anti-poker machine platform I was openly mocked by a number of politicians from the major parties.

But now, I draw encouragement from the fact that the Productivity Commission seems to be saying that we were all crazy to ever let these machines into our communities.

Nick Xenophon is the independent senator for South Australia.
Used with permission