For many people, gambling merely fulfils a short-term desire to be entertained. Yet for an estimated 2.3% of Australian adults, it has become a compulsion; an uncontrollable addiction which largely affects their personal, social and financial life.
Over the past decade, the gambling industry in Australia has expanded significantly.
Currently, every state and territory within Australia has at least one casino operating within its jurisdiction, offering various gambling options, including poker and gaming machines, to anyone over the legal age of 18.
As a result, Australia accounts for over 20% of the world’s poker machines, Mission Australia said in 2009.
Independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie has recently proposed “poker machine reform” to minimise and target the consequences of problem gambling.
The reform aims to introduce a one-dollar bet limit on all poker machines nationwide, as well as a $120 an hour loss limit.
Wilkie told the National Press club on March 29: “The agreement I did reach with Julia Gillard, which I will hold her to, [is] that there will be mandatory pre-commitment systems rolled out on every poker machine in the land commencing in 2014.”
Wilkie warned he would cease to support Gillard's minority government if she does not pass the reforms by May next year.
Unsurprisingly, Clubs Australia has lashed out against the reform, labelling it “un-Australian”.
“This license to punt will send pubs and clubs broke,” said Peter Newell, President of Clubs Australia at the launch of a $20 million advertising campaign against the gambling reform on April 11.
Australian Council of Social Services president Simon Shrapel told the ABC on March 29 there is no evidence clubs will go broke as a result of the poker machine reform.
He said: “It's not surprising that clubs are fighting hard on this. They've indicated right from the outset they don't want any scheme that's going to be effective in helping to both prevent problem gambling and also to assist those people with problem gambling.”
A Productivity Commission report released in June 2010 uncovered that state governments rake in about $5 billion a year from gambling taxes alone.
NSW and Victoria received the majority of gambling taxes, as they gained $1.6 billion each during 2008-9. Both of these states are currently backing the campaign by Clubs Australia against the planned reforms.
Alongside this, Queensland deputy premier Paul Lucas said he was not convinced that the planned crackdown on poker machines would be successful.
“Poker machines are merely one aspect of gambling and I would be concerned that initiatives that specifically target poker machines could have the undesired effect of displacing the gambling to other less regulated forms such as the internet,” said Lucas.
NSW tourism minister George Souris backed this notion, saying the reforms would drive punters underground or online, and would not fix problem gambling.
Online gambling has become an easy and increasingly used source of gambling. Although these sites require the user to be over the legal age of 18, there is no real means of regulating who is playing online. As a result, underage gambling has become increasingly common over the past decade.
This, just as underground forms of gambling, has proven to be a difficult aspect to address and regulate.
Regardless, Wilkie feels millions of Australians would agree with the poker machine reforms.
“Although the industry is very loud and very rich and will do whatever it takes to stop me and to stop the government from implementing these reforms, I know I speak for millions of Australians,” he said.
“There's something like 95,000 Australians who have been identified as problem gamblers with poker machines, and they account for something like 40% of all of the money that is lost on poker machines in this country.”
A national survey commissioned by UnitingCare Wesley and carried out by the Australia Institute in April revealed that 81% of Australians agreed that punters should be allowed to set limits on how much they bet.
Gambling in Australia contributes a significant amount of revenue each year to state governments, as well as pubs and clubs around the country.
However, this is at the expense of thousands of Australians who suffer from a gambling addiction, not to mention the families and friends of those individuals who are also affected by this destructive behaviour.
Although gambling ranges from underground illegal systems and online gambling to mainstream forms such as poker, card and gaming machines, the poker machine reforms may prove to be an efficient start towards combating problem gambling in Australia.