One thing the new government could do to reduce suicide would be to “re-position” itself in relation to the poker machine industry. The Alliance for Gambling Reform estimates that gambling impacts are a factor in the suicides of around 400 people per year; they also contribute to enormous financial stress, playing a role in family breakdown and domestic and family violence. Financial losses sustained by ordinary people are crushing: in NSW in 2018 alone, gamblers lost a staggering $6.5 billion on pokies.
A big obstacle to gambling reform is that both major parties accept political donations from the gambling industry. The Australian Hotels Association made record political donations in the last state elections in Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia. We don’t know how much they spent in NSW before the March election. The state Coalition again signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Clubs NSW; and the ALP has also been criticised as having gambling-friendly policies – its campaign was launched at Revesby Workers Club, whose pokies raked in $51 million from ordinary punters last year.
The gambling industry claims its donations are not intended to influence government or shape public policy; the parties assert that their pokie-friendly policies are not a result of any such influence.
But one important step the NSW government and Opposition could do in the next term would be to rethink in the public interest their relationship with Big Gambling – as they did some years ago with Big Tobacco. Voters may also be interested in asking questions of candidates in the upcoming federal election on their gambling policies, and whether their party accepts pokie donations.
Meanwhile, other practicable policies could be adopted in NSW to reduce harms caused by pokies. Introducing maximum $1 bets would lower the amount a person can lose per hour from $1,200 to $120.
Banning loyalty programs would stop the free food, drinks and other “special services” that keep heavier gamblers gambling (and losing). Giving local councils more say in whether or not poker machines can be installed in a venue and where those venues are located would also help reduce exposure to gambling. Despite NSW already having around 92,000 pokies – a world leader per capita – our local councils have no such powers.
These reforms would be big steps in the right direction.
It’s time for our Premier, armed with her new mandate, to show responsible and compassionate leadership – to bring about practical support for people impacted by gambling addiction, and address the high rates of gambling-related suicide in NSW.