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Talking Point published in the Mercury newspaper 3 September 2020.

Just as seatbelts and drink driving laws made cars safer, we need measures to make poker machines safer. The tragic fact is that about 80 per cent of people addicted to gambling are addicted to poker machines, and this results in at least 400 suicides in Australia each year.

If governments continue to insist on profiting from this madness, surely they’re obligated to do something about the terrible cost to the community. In Tasmania the state government is proposing new gambling laws that, disturbingly, do nothing to reduce the harm poker machines cause, but instead handsomely reward the gambling industry that bankrolled its election campaign. The legislation has been paused during the pandemic, but sooner or later the government will try to ram this terrible policy through state parliament.

The proposed laws must be thrown out, or at least amended to improve harm minimisation. To that end I’ve proposed a Poker Machine Community Protection Plan with four measures that will make a real difference. These are slower spins, $1-maximum bets, tougher fines for venues that flout the rules and the removal of addictive features from machines. I’m urging state MPs to support this plan when the government resurrects in parliament its love letter to the gambling industry.

At least in NSW venues are finally starting to be held to account for the human misery they cause. A few months ago, that state’s regulator handed out a record $200,000 fine to the Dee Why RSL after a patron killed himself following a 13-hour pokies binge. The venue profiled Gary Van Duinen as a big loser and used high-roller perks like harbour cruises and free food and drinks to encourage his gambling. For two years the 45-year-old builder would visit the venue twice a week, losing between $1000 and $8000 in marathon sessions. Staff ignored his wife’s pleas to stop him gambling.

In a first in NSW, the Dee Why RSL will now have to employ a full-time gambling marshall to look out for potential problem gamblers and allow applications from family and friends to have their loved ones excluded. This is a welcome development, but human life is priceless and no penalty is large enough to reflect the consequences of the venue’s actions. Just ask Gary’s mother, Joy, who hopes the penalties will put the industry on notice, despite the fine being small change for these huge poker-machine palaces. Make no mistake, the poker machine industry mines human misery and governments around Australia, including in Tasmania, are more concerned with protecting their gambling taxes than protecting the community.

Seemingly every week the media reports cases of ruined lives. Remember the toddler rushed to hospital in a critical condition after being left in a hot car outside a poker machine venue in Melbourne last summer. Just last month The Star in Sydney was fined after kids were busted playing poker machines in its casino.

In July, the Woolworths-owned AHL Group, Australia’s largest pokies operator, was fined when two of its pubs were found to be illegally plying regular gamblers with free booze to weaken their control and boost their gambling.

There’s no reason to think Tasmania is immune to any of this. It is commonplace for members of the community to tell me their story about gambling addiction and how it has cost someone their life savings, loved ones or even a life. Reports of blatant and dangerous poker machine venue misconduct come my way from time to time. So next time you hear the Tasmanian government’s spin that poker machines are harmless fun, remember these stories and add your voice to the calls for better protections on these dangerous machines.

When the poker machine laws come before State Parliament they should be rejected. If they aren’t, the parliament must at least insist on the harm-minimisation measures in my Poker Machine Protection Plan: slower spins, $1-maximum bets, tougher fines for venues and removal of addictive features from machines. To do otherwise would be to continue to put profits before people. And to wilfully ignore the 400 suicides each year caused by gambling addiction.

If you need support, please call Lifeline 13 11 14 or Gambling Help Line Tasmania on 1800 858 858.