23 September 2023

How faith groups helped push gambling onto the NSW election agenda

Australians gamble away an estimated $25 billion a year. Picture: iStock.

Jenan Taylor

6 April 2023

Sydney organisation Wesley Mission had dealt with the damage caused by gambling for more than three decades, yet its concerns gained little traction.

But in 2021 the launch of a NSW Crime Commission inquiry into the link between money laundering and gambling galvanised Wesley Mission chief executive officer and superintendent the Reverend Stu Cameron to throw more at the issue.

It led to the formation of a coalition of bodies that included the Alliance for Gambling Reform and the Sydney Anglican Church, and that helped raise critical public awareness of the need for gambling change in the lead up to the NSW election.

Research consistently shows that Australia ranks highest in the world for the most gambling losses.

In 2018-19 Australians gambled away $25 billion on legal gambling products, according to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimates.

Multiple studies also show that in NSW 900,000 to 1.7 million people are being hurt because of their own or another person’s gambling, amounting to a public health crisis.

But an historical lack of interest in the social harms that gambling caused has helped entrench the problem, Mr Cameron said.

“Since poker machines were introduced into NSW in 1956, the local industry has had the field to itself and there has been very little debate about it,” he said. “That means the gambling industry dominated in pubs and clubs, and in many respects, bullied out of existence any meaningful opposition.”

Read more: Australians blind to gambling as Pride jersey debate rages: Costello

But Wesley’s frontline work with people affected by gambling was a major motivator for the organisation’s push for change.

Together with his frontline staff, Mr Cameron identified what Wesley’s approach should be.

Elevating the testimonies of people with lived experience of gambling damage was one of the strategies.

Engaging broadly with civic and religious groups, as well as with politicians was another.

Being able to show how communities, particularly marginalised people, had been hurt by gambling won Wesley the support of those politicians.

At a Pokies reform launch at Parliament House in November last year, NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann declared they had her back.

She said the Greens were prepared to do further leg work around the need for reforms including letter-dropping to households.

“Voters care more about just tolls. They also care about what poker machines are doing to people’s lives as well,” Ms Faehrmann said.

Mr Cameron said the organisation used its strong connections with gambling researchers and academics to examine cashless gambling, and the facial recognition technologies that the betting industry clubs seemed intent on pushing.

“We offered the community strong, evidence-backed policies and analysis of gambling loss data that clearly showed the extent of the problem. I think clearly putting that information in front of the public gave them an appetite for reform,” he said.

This included a harm prevention discussion paper that showed how a cashless gambling system could help the state manage the public health crisis and criminal activities.

With the help of Alliance for Gambling chief advocate the Reverend Tim Costello, Mr Cameron elicited support from faith bodies that were initially hesitant to join his push.

In the end, having a diverse collective of faith bodies that included the Arab Council and the NSW Council of Churches became the campaign’s strength, Mr Cameron said.

Read more: Some synod questions ‘manifestly out of order’

Sydney Dean the Reverend Canon Sandy Grant said he had been advocating for change for a while because of the enormous gambling damage he had seen in his pastoral care work.

He said although there had been some lag in a political call for change, largely because of the lobbying power of the NSW pubs and clubs, the Christian impulse was about loving your neighbour, and that meant that Christians had to intervene.

“That Jesus cares for the downtrodden doesn’t automatically translate to specific policy programs, but in this case the burdens were terrible and the solutions obvious,” Canon Grant said.

He said what had also been very encouraging for the push was the former NSW premier Dominic Perrotet’s anti-gambling stance.

But Canon Grant said a defining moment in the reform movement was a decision by he and Mr Cameron to issue bipartisan call for reform.

“We weren’t interested in politics, and it was not a matter of left or right. It was about saying, ‘Join us on a unity ticket for a cashless card,’” he said.

Canon Grant said although there were sometimes differences within the Anglican Communion, he was buoyed that Anglicans from across NSW had appealed for action in their local areas.

That included clergy from the Armidale diocese, who had received local media attention.

Mr Cameron said a call for change from trade unions, as well as some clubs voicing their anti-gambling outlook, also heightened the public appetite for the debate.

Although the NSW election finished with a state Labor government in place, the new Premier Chris Minns started his term proposing a 500-machine cashless card trial.

But the momentum for gambling reform has not abated, Mr Cameron said.

A survey commissioned by Wesley Mission found that 76 per cent of adults favoured practical action through the introduction of cashless gambling cards, rather than a trial.

Read more: Interdenominational collaborations fruitful for Anglican Christians

It comes as new research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies showed that most Australians were concerned about the availability of gambling and its impacts on the community.

Mr Cameron believes this gives other jurisdictions reasons for optimism.

“If reform happens in NSW, the state where the problem is greatest, it will snowball to other states,” he said.

Canon Grant said the biggest takeaway for faith bodies that wanted to elevate gambling reform in other jurisdictions, was that compassion, perseverance and having a good understanding of the politics of gambling industry was of utmost importance.

“Compassion is what has to drive it, and it’s not just enough to pass a motion here or to make a one off lobby there. The cigarette industry reforms didn’t happen overnight, so you’ve got to keep at it,” he said.

For assistance with gambling harm please call Gambler’s Help on 1800 858 858. 

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