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Gambling: A Few Bad Choices or a Rotten Industry?

29 October 2018 at 8:58 am
Maggie Coggan
Tony Mohr is the executive director of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, a coalition of 80 different local councils, not for profits, and community groups, fiercely fighting for an overhaul of the gambling industry.

Maggie Coggan | 29 October 2018 at 8:58 am


Gambling: A Few Bad Choices or a Rotten Industry?
29 October 2018 at 8:58 am

Tony Mohr is the executive director of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, a coalition of over 60 different local councils, not for profits, and community groups, fiercely fighting for an overhaul of the gambling industry.

At the age of 17 in Australia, you can’t vote, legally drink in a pub, or place a bet.

But that doesn’t stop betting agencies from sending direct mail to those 17 year olds, offering them thousands of dollars in credit, so when they do turn 18, placing a bet is the first thing on their mind.

It was hearing a story like this from one of the alliance’ first donors, that inspired Mohr to establish a coalition of over 60 organisations that would campaign for legal reform of the gambling industry.

He realised though that his mission also meant changing Australia’s relaxed cultural attitude towards gambling, and that it was the manipulation of the industry driving this, rather than a few individuals who made a few bad decisions.

In this week’s Changemaker, Mohr talks about the importance of small wins, setting practical goals and changing historical attitudes.  

Was there a specific event that made you want to start the alliance?

Like a lot of Australians, I had a pretty thin knowledge of gambling harm, and what it looked like and what it meant. I began to get an idea of this harm when one of our earliest donors, who had a 17 year old son at the time, told me his son was getting personalised mail, offering him thousands of dollars in credit with sports betting companies. This is at a stage where his son couldn’t get a drink in a pub, or drive without P plates, yet he was given heaps of credit to gamble with.

The more I spoke to people who had gambled, on poker machines or sports betting, the more it struck me that we had an industry that was really intentionally seeking to make a lot of profit, knowing full well it was really doing a lot of damage to people’s lives. Those personal stories were the ones that really touched me, angered and motivated me to go no, this is a really inequitable thing and we need to do something about it.

Why did you think this was a more effective way of fighting the issue than setting up a solo group?

Before we got started with anything, we pulled together all the people who in one way, shape or form, had done some form of campaigning or advocacy on gambling reform or harm, and quickly concluded that we needed to get together. We couldn’t act individually anymore, we needed to band together and pool our resources, because there were very few, and there still are very few, resources going into the reform campaign. The alliance model was realised pretty quickly, but actually took quite a while to get people together to figure where they had common ground and where they didn’t. Because you can say that you’re in an alliance, but unless there is meaningful intention to collaborate, and to hear each other out, and to agree on shared goals and strategy, it’s a bit paper thin.

What sort of challenges came with managing so many different groups?

I think everybody who has done any kind of work in the space, quickly becomes aware of how large the problem is, and it’s always much larger than you originally thought. The biggest challenge was getting people to set smart and achievable goals that would one day lead to bigger change.

People in different organisations have different theories of change, appetites for risk, and so it’s not just a one-off consideration, there’s still work to be done, to make sure people do actually have a shared goal and strategy and effort. If we stopped doing that, I really don’t think the alliance would last.

It seems as though the industry has such a stranglehold over government, and people in positions of power. Do you think reform is actually achievable seeing as money talks?

Reform is definitely achievable, but it’s not a quick process. Probably the best analogue, is the tobacco control campaign. There’s a lot that we have learnt from that campaign, and it was something that was rolled out over decades. In the 1970s, positive smoking ads were everywhere, in all forms of sport, everyone smoked at work and on flights it was hyper normalised. The tobacco industry did have a lot of influence for a long time, and it was a slow process of removing their credibility, and exposing the crooks and motivations of the industry, that over time, if you’re a decision maker, in any sector, you don’t even want to be seen standing next to a tobacco industry senior executive, which is a huge change. I think we need to look to that for inspiration when we’re thinking about how much influence the gambling industry does wield at the moment, but it’s not unassailable, it’s not a fact of nature, and it is changing.

Despite the controversy and protests around an ad for the Everest Cup being projected onto the Opera House, it went ahead. How did that make you feel?  

You know what, I felt really energised by it. What we saw during the Everest Cup campaign was people on the ground… mums, dads people from all walks of life saying this is outrageous. It wasn’t surprising that politicians were slow to catch up, but I think the strong backlash really did catch the New South Wales premier by surprise. Although the ad went ahead, the signing of an MOU between the NSW government, and the entire clubs industry, which in previous years has been a spectacle to be proud of, was basically buried by the prime minister. They did not say a word about it, and that reassured me that gambling that week was too toxic, and too hot for Gladys Berejiklian to be associated with. It’s a small step forward I would say, not a deal breaker, but it’s a shift of attitude that we will see more and more of.

Tony Mohr

Do you think there is enough awareness around the harm gambling causes aside from financial loss?

Most people are shocked of scale of money lost, but it’s the more human impacts that are both less well understood in the public and in research. Of course financial stress is a big issue, but relationship breakdown, family violence, other forms of substance abuse and the impact on day to day living, like being able to keep up with mortgage payments, are important to know about as well. It’s important to recognise, gambling doesn’t cause family violence per se, but adds fuel to the fire and it makes a bad situation worse. For those who are really passionate about stopping domestic violence, it’s a connection that’s just being explored now, but it pretty well understood for those in front line services.  We work with community service organisations in western Sydney, who provide a whole bunch of support for homelessness, family violence, financial counselling and they estimate 80 per cent of their clients have gambling harm in their households, which is an astonishing figure.

You are pushing for gambling harm to be seen as a public health issue, why would that make a difference?

If it was, we would have a better understanding of why government action is needed.

There is still a lot more research to be done though, and we are so far behind compared to other issues.

Why are we so far behind?

I think one of the biggest reasons is that the gambling industry has been quite active in establishing a particular framing of the issue, that really has let them off the hook for a long time. When people hear about gambling harm, particularly in NSW, where we’ve had poker machines for a lot longer, instead of thinking, “my goodness, how has the government allowed this to happen, something needs to be done to regulate the industry”, they tend to think “it’s terrible that that happened to that person, they shouldn’t have made those choices, I can’t believe they gambled away so much money”. If it was the gamblers fault entirely, then there’d be no need for the industry to do anything differently, but that is definitely not the case. I also think the industry know that’s how people think about the issue, which has buffered them from resistance for a long time.

Australia has a very historical connection to gambling, is that hard to battle?  

Australia’s relationship with gambling has a very meshed, social benefit. One of the things that is both stunning and also so ironic about the Opera House campaign was that gambling was the very reason the Opera House was able to be built! There’s a deeper insight into that as well, gamblers are used to the idea that we fund things we want through gambling profit. So because poker machines from very early on, were only able to operated by non-profit clubs, it was only in the 80s that pokies made their way into pubs. So because there are good things that have happened because of poker machines, it gives them a sort of social license. I think though, people need to see the industry is out to make a profit from people, and the bad outweighs the good.   

The industry has really harnessed the power of technology to broaden their market, especially with young people. Is this worrying?

Poker machines are like the heroin of the industry. They’ve been around a long time and cause a lot of harm, but sports gambling is the new kid on the block, it’s the ice epidemic of gambling. The most recent Australian statistics show that poker machine gambling is fairly static, but sports betting is growing at a rate of 15 per cent a year, which is not a wild statistic, but it’s fast growth from a low base. It’s about a billion dollars in loss each year, whereas pokies is a bit over 12 billion per year. So you’ve got one industry that’s very established, that’s causing a lot of harm and desperately needs regulation, but we do have an emerging problem, and if action isn’t taken now, it will really get out of control.

Crown court case against the industry supporters

Your big campaigns currently are getting AFL clubs and Woolworths to divest from poker machines, are you making progress?

On the AFL side, when we started the alliance, only North Melbourne had poker machine free status, but over the last two years though, we’ve seen a whole number of clubs plan their business model away from poker machines. The majority of clubs are now poker machine free, which is really valuable for us to see, not because it leads to an instant reduction of gambling harm, but it does show that you can have competitive, amazing, inspiring family friendly footy clubs who have chosen not to go down the route of having those machines to fund themselves.

As for Woolworths, it’s both exciting and daunting. They have over 12,000 machines, much more than any individual AFL club. Unlike them though, they want profit, not families who want flags. So they are harder to convince, but we have seen small changes happen. Coles also own poker machines, but far less, and they are very open about the fact they don’t want to be in poker machines, and are trying to get out of it like the AFL. That’s putting pressure on them, because both brands really value their reputation, and we’re at a tipping point where they’re considering if the cost of their reputation is worth the benefit of the cash that the pokies bring in for them.

If there was one thing you could change during your time at the alliance, what would it be?

Get AFL clubs out of pokies, and out of gambling, I think that would be something that’s very doable, and also tremendously powerful in terms of the industry and where we need to go.

If within my time at the alliance, I could also leave it with the capacity and support to carry on, and to keep stepping up the fight, that would be amazing.

How would you say the experience of leading the alliance, and working on this issue changed you?

I think there’s two ways being involved in this campaign has changed me. One is it’s really deepened my sense of how much it matters to have an equal community, and an equal Australia. Australians have a really good sense of fairness, and that is something which I’m quite proud of. Gambling and its industry really underscore how important it is to not allow one group in our society to be taken advantage of, and manipulated and financially devastated for the benefit of a small group of people. It’s also drummed home how important it is to involve the people that you’re actually trying to address and help into every level of your organisation. At our first board meeting, we realised we didn’t actually have anyone who had experienced gambling harm and that happens within a lot of organisations. I’m not saying everyone has to have experienced the issue, but it should just be a requirement of any organisation to listen to and hear and take direction for those they are trying to work for.  

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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