Who to trust to deliver harm reduction gambling reform in NSW


“Gambling is wrecking the lives of thousands of people in NSW. We know what the solution is and it’s not facial recognition technology. It’s a mandatory gambling card with time and spending limits.” – Cate Faehrmann, Greens MLC

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Gambling has suddenly become a hot social justice issue in the NSW election campaign with both major parties making commitments to reduce gambling harm and the Greens, unions and social welfare not-for-profits be backing a cashless card solution.

Gambling reform has become an unexpected issue in the NSW election

By Jacquelene Pearson

Last November the United Workers Union, the NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS) and Wesley Mission released a joint statement on gambling harm, all recognising “the harmful impacts of gambling, including on staff in gambling venues like casinos and pubs and clubs with electronic gambling machines”.

“Together, we are committed to working actively and, where possible, in joint action to reduce gambling-related harms,” the statement said, labelling gambling reform as “everybody’s business”.

From the union’s perspective, the statement was an opportunity to highlight that staff working in gambling venues were “an under-recognised cohort of people who experience harm from gambling and are at greater risk of developing gambling problems than the general public. Staff regularly witness the distress and anger of people who struggle to manage their gambling and may themselves experience harms ranging from financial stress and family relationship problems to significant physical and mental health impacts.”

The statement highlighted the “inherent conflict” between gambling venues wanting to maximise profits and the proper design and implementation of codes of conduct that aim to prevent or minimise gambling harm.

“Research shows that most gambling expenditure in Australia is from people experiencing some form of gambling-related harm,” the statement said.

“Gambling codes of conduct should be developed in consultation with workers and people with lived experience of the impacts of gambling, including gambling counsellors, and based on the most recent independent research.

The organisations behind the statement made it clear that they wanted specific measures to reduce harm including:

  1. Staff in venues receiving better and more regular training to respond to gambling harm in their workplaces, with the training independently designed and delivered;
  2. All venues have an appropriate number of Registered Gambling Officers who are directly elected by workers in the relevant workplace and have sufficient powers to take action based on the relevant Gambling Codes.

“Gambling harm is a public health matter; the responsibility for reducing and preventing harm should not rest entirely on individuals.

“Venues, the industry, governments and regulators should work with lived experience advocates and the United Workers Union to develop appropriate safeguards and control mechanisms.

Clearly there is momentum for gambling reform in NSW, the question is, what form should it take and will either of the major parties, described by the Greens as captured by the gambling industry, be able to deliver? Or would NSW be better off with a hung parliament to achieve meaningful gambling reform?

Wesley Mission CEO and gambling reform advocate Rev Stu Cameron said: “Everybody’s talking about genuine gambling reform for the first time in a NSW.

“NSW Labor has heard the community’s message that it is not sufficient to kick the can down the road, and people want genuine reform. With this announcement, NSW Labor is off to a good start, but frankly, there’s a long way to go.

“In November, Wesley Mission and its partners launched the ‘Put Pokies in Their Place’ policy platform. Our five recommended reforms are based on evidence and research into gambling harm minimisation.

“Since then, we’ve seen NSW Greens’ policy and now NSW Labor’s approach. However, we are still waiting on more clarity from the Coalition and call on the Premier to announce further detail about what’s proposed.

“Wesley Mission welcomes genuine, good-faith initiatives on gambling reform,” Rev Cameron said

NSW Labor has announced if elected it would expand a trial of mandatory cashless gaming.

“There is a lot of detail that we would expect to see in pre-implementation testing, which is good,” Rev Cameron said in response to the Labor proposal.

“The key is the independence of the panel; it cannot be dominated by industry or industry-associated academics and must include people with lived experience and venue staff representatives.

“There is nothing stopping NSW Labor from committing to a mandatory cashless card and then informing that decision with pre-launch testing,” he said.

Labor has also announced its intention to ban political donations from clubs if it is elected in March.

A poker machine cash upload limit of $500 will help to stop money laundering and will help people restrict their spending, according to Rev Cameron.

“This is an interim fix only until a mandatory card comes in. This is a positive announcement from NSW Labor that could make a difference in the long run. However, this will only apply to new machines, and there is no commitment to mandate the changeover of older machines. This is a software update only. The manufacturers make software changes like this all the time, and this fix could apply to all machines at a minimal cost.

“Perspective is important – poker machines in NSW pubs this year will earn on average around $150,000 each. This is an industry that can’t cry poor.”

Labor, if elected, has also pledged to ban all external gaming-related signage.

These sorts of signs are unnecessary. They are a visual blight on our towns and suburbs and a trigger and a danger to people experiencing gambling harm,” according to the Wesley Mission CEO.

Labor is also talking about promising to reduce the number of poker machines in NSW but Wesley Mission wants to see the reductions occure in areas where there are the greatest level of gambling harm.

We know that the industry is moving poker machines into vulnerable areas like Canterbury-Bankstown, Blacktown and Cumberland council areas, and there should be an immediate ban like Fairfield’s on additional machines in already severely impacted areas,” Rev Cameron said.

The Reverend welcomed Labor’s announcement that it would invest in harm minimization programs through a $100 million fund from the Star Casino fine. The money would be used under a Labor Government to pay for pre-launch testing of a cashless card, machine buy-backs, harm minimisation measures and implementing recommendations from an independent panel.

“We called for this last year when the fine was announced, and the key will be who controls the research and funds – it must be truly independent (like the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education’ FARE’).

Labor will also introduce Responsible Gaming Officers in venues, as per the joint UWU, Wesley and NCOSS statement.

“We fundamentally oppose the introduction and reliance on FRT as a harm minimisation tool,” Rev Cameron said.

“The introduction of a mandatory universal cashless card will provide all the technology necessary to implement a highly effective state-wide self-exclusion system, that will also have the benefit of preventing money laundering and significantly reducing gambling harm.”

Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann has consistently advocated for gambling reforms in NSW. She has stated that both Opposition Leader, Chris Minns and NSW National Party Leader, Paul Toole, could break the stranglehold the gambling industry has on politics in NSW and neutralise any electoral threats the industry may be making “by also refusing to enter into any agreements until they act on the recommendations from the NSW Crime Commission.”

Last October Faehrmann wrote to the three political leaders on 18 October urging them not to enter into any pre-election agreement with Clubs NSW and to implement key measures to reduce gambling harm, including the cashless gambling card.

“It’s a welcome move that the Premier has agreed not to sign any agreement with clubs until the Crime Commission’s recommendations have been acted upon. I now urge Chris Minns and Paul Toole to do the same,” Faehrmann said, before Labor had announced its gambling policy for the election.

“On the back of the inquiries into Crown and Star Casinos and now the Crime Commission report, the public support has never been higher for our political leaders to act on the poker machine scourge across NSW.

“The community is watching to see if our political leaders have the guts to stand together and demand reform to combat money laundering and gambling harm including a cashless gambling card. This opportunity for all parties to stand firm against any pushback from the gambling industry may never come again and it’s what’s required to kill off any threats of campaigns by them against candidates in key marginal seats.

“It shows you what a stranglehold the gambling industry has over politics in this state when Chris Minns and Paul Toole are more scared of any campaign waged against their candidates in vulnerable seats than they are of the NSW Crime Commission’s report.”

She said the Premier’s commitment to implementing a cashless gambling card was an opportunity for multi-partisan gambling reform.

“We have a unique opportunity, right now, for all parties to stand united together against pressure from the industry and enact  gambling reform that will significantly  reduce gambling harm and improve the lives of so many people in NSW.

“The Labor party is also conflicted on the issue of poker machines, with the Randwick Labor Club* established to give financial aid to the ALP and taking $3.1 million from poker machine revenue in 2020 alone. I call on the ALP to divest themselves of all poker machines and support a ban on donations from gambling interests in the next term of parliament.”

Labor’s commitment to ban donations from clubs appears to clear up this issue for the Greens MLC.

According to Faerhmann, between January 2011 and June 2021 clubs across NSW donated  $418,520 to NSW Labor. The Randwick Labor Club took $3.1 million in revenue from poker machines in 2020 and $4.17M in 2019. The club’s constitution states that one of the objects for which the club is established is to ‘render financial aid either by gifts or loans to the Australian Labor Party and/or branches or other groups affiliated to, associated with or recognised by the Australian Labor Party.’ A requirement of membership of the club is that a person is a member of the Australian Labor Party. 

The Greens also support a ban of facial recognition technology in gambling venues after revelations it was being offered to pubs, clubs and casinos in NSW as being able to “improve the VIP experience, encourage repeat visits from first-time players, and build loyalty”.

That revelation came shortly after the NSW Government pulled legislation before the parliament that would have allowed clubs and pubs to roll out facial recognition technology for the implementation of a statewide exclusion register. 

“The gambling industry is pretending they’ve taken steps to minimise harm while deploying technology that is already being used in other jurisdictions to increase gambling profits,” said Cate Faehrmann.

“It’s disgraceful that the Government was prepared to legislate for the implementation of a technology that would have allowed clubs to monitor poker machine users’ behaviour and increase the addictiveness of the machines. 

“It’s not good enough for the Government to just pull the bill. They need to prohibit this technology in gambling venues before it can be abused. 

“The Government must instead implement a state-run gambling card, which would be the biggest single step NSW could take to reduce gambling harm while nipping money laundering in the bud and protecting people’s privacy,”

“These revelations also show why any exclusion register must be managed by the Government regardless of what technology is used. Putting this data in the hands of the gambling industry is like having Dracula in charge of the blood bank. 

“I’ll be bringing forward legislation in the next term of Parliament to ban the use of facial recognition technology by gambling venues to prevent this technology being used to increase gambling harms even more,” said Cate Faehrmann. 

“The fact that the clubs industry said ‘jump’ and the government and the opposition said ‘how high’ shows just how much the gambling industry has the major parties under its thumb. 

“If it wasn’t for the timing of the NSW Crime Commission’s report, the government would have allowed facial recognition technology in every pub and club in NSW with the full backing of the opposition.

“We were looking forward to amending the bill to put in place what actually works to stop money laundering and reduce gambling harm and that’s a cashless gambling card.

“Gambling is wrecking the lives of thousands of people in NSW. We know what the solution is and it’s not facial recognition technology. It’s a mandatory gambling card with time and spending limits. 

“Former Gambling Minister Victor Dominello’s proposal for a cashless gambling card is two years old. It could have been rolled out to every pub and club in the state by now but instead he was stripped of the gambling portfolio while this Government tied itself in knots to do anything except introduce a card.” 

Faerhmann had called for the fast-tracking of the cashless gambling card following last year’s release of the NSW Crime Commission report into money laundering through poker machines finding billions of dollars were ‘washed’ through the machines each year. 

The Commission’s first recommendation was that gambling cards be introduced to combat money laundering through poker machines. This came two years after the idea was floated by Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello who was then stripped of the gambling portfolio. 

If you or someone you know has a gambling problem, free support and information is available through Gambling Aware. If you want to know where your state parliamentarians or candidates stand in relation to reforming gambling to reduce its harm, send them an email and find out what they think and where they stand.

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