The National Council of Churches has just published a resource on the impact of gambling in Australia, entitled Is nothing sacred? An answer to this question may have come unexpectedly in the news that pokies venues have offered to run childcare services in exchange for tax breaks on gambling profits. If our children can be seen as a commodity to be traded to avoid paying tax, then perhaps nothing is really sacred any more?
It’s important to note that this isn’t just a bunch of Christians being wowsers. It’s true that many people in the community engage in gambling as a social or recreational activity without enduring harms. However, as a major provider of social and community services, including Gamblers’ Help, The Salvation Army sees firsthand the devastating impact of problem gambling on individuals and families. Apart from those who come to us directly seeking help with a gambling addiction, the consequences of gambling appear across our whole range of services, among those who’ve experienced family breakdown or become homeless to those who end up in courts and prisons because of their gambling.
While the rhetoric of the gambling industry suggests problem gambling is about individual responsibility, the social harm caused by the preponderance of poker machines in particular should cause us to examine the evidence carefully. For instance, it has been estimated that approximately two per cent of Victorians have gambling problems, and about 40 per cent of this group have dependent children, translating into around 30,000 families. The nature of gambling addiction does not absolve the individual of his or her own responsibility. However, the far-reaching consequences mean we all share a moral responsibility as a community to deal with this issue.
Though they are not the whole problem, poker machines are such a big contributor to this issue that mitigating their impact should be a key priority. Pokie gamblers are more than twice as likely to be problem gamblers than those who participate in other types of gambling. Of those who regularly play the pokies, nearly one in four are problem gamblers. Over 40 per cent of all pokies revenue comes from problem gamblers, and more than 80 per cent of clients who access The Salvation Army’s Gamblers’ Help service in Melbourne are suffering harm caused as a result of playing poker machines.
The numbers give a compelling view of the problems associated with gambling, but each number represents real people with individual names, families, and a web of relationships that are negatively impacted when the costs of gambling become out of control. Though some of these costs are borne by the individual, more are carried by those who surround them, and ultimately by the community which has to deal with associated side effects, including mental and physical health issues, substance abuse, family breakdown, and the crime that arises out of desperation.
As long as we continue to accept that it is okay for large companies to benefit from the suffering of others, and our State Government continues to budget significant proportions of its revenue from gambling income, then we’re all taking a gamble on the costs to the communities in which we live.
Captain Jason Davies-Kildea is the Manager of The Salvation Army Victoria Social Programme and Policy Unit.