Ex-gambler calls for reform

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Attempts at gambling reform have come and gone but a former gambler says the frustration at failure to change remains. James Triggs reports.

A Victorian woman who estimates that she has lost $350,000 to poker machines says she is frustrated at the lack of gambling reform and political action.

“Gambling is in the news every week but nothing gets done. I don’t understand why they’re not doing more,” Conny McLaughlan says.

Ms McLaughlan says that without reform, nothing is done to reduce the risk of problem gamblers putting themselves and their families in bad situations.

“More chance of problem gamblers every day.”

Ms McLaughlan likens the pokies to a luxury cruise: expensive, but an experience she didn’t want to end.

She alleges the design features of poker machines kept her hooked on gambling and the carnival-like sights and sounds which signaled the tiniest of wins never failed to command her attention.

“They made me pick a favourite machine … If I won on that machine; I’d go back to that.”

Ms McLaughlan first encountered pokies during yearly trips to NSW.

She says she was hooked on gambling very quickly, unable to leave the machines even to eat.

When she found local gaming machines, she felt a peace away from the problems of the world.

The world of pokies is one of darkened rooms lit by flanks of flashing, ringing lights.

Time loses its normal meaning and the darkness makes it harder to properly think, Ms McLaughlan says.

She would leave only when she had no more money to gamble.

“A win means you would stay there longer.”

Her job and friendships suffered but at the time, it just didn’t seem to really matter.

When she wasn’t gambling, she would often be thinking about it.

Dr Jennifer Borrell of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, told a 2012 government inquiry into problem gambling that she has seen a pattern happen again and again.

“Reforms will be brought in to great fanfare and everyone thinks, ‘They look really good.’ But there is always a lot of lobbying from the industry …. It is like having a fantastic car but while you were not looking someone sneaked in and disconnected a couple of wires so that it does not work.”

The problem, Dr Borrell says, is that so much money from gambling comes from problem gamblers that the industry refuses to consider meaningful reforms.

“No-one ever wants to look at anything that will make the revenue go down.”

Gambling researcher Francis Markham told The Australian Financial Review that gambling reform has been successfully slowed by the gambling industry, pointing to conveniently timed donations.

“There’s a correlation between a spike in political donations from these groups just when there’s more talk about gambling reform.”

Australian state and territory governments gained $5.8 billion in taxes from gambling in the 2015 financial year.

The social cost of gambling to the community is estimated to be at least $4.7 billion a year.

The Institute of Public Reform defends the gambling industry. In a 2009 report it argues that gambling involves people willingly spending their money on something they enjoy.

The IPA say that consumers can excessively consume any product and that regulation to protect problem gamblers interferes with the rights of the majority of non-problem gamblers to use gambling as a form of entertainment.

The IPA defends gambling as providing much-needed revenue for government and says that this revenue outweighs the social problems of gambling.

Gamblers can lose $1200 an hour and in 2015, Australians lost $11.6 billion to poker machines.

Ms McLaughlan says that the timelessness in gambling venues needs to end.

“I think they need a great, big, huge clock.”

She believes venues should be forced to have windows that allow gamblers to see the outside world.

Recovering from gambling alone is very hard, she says.

“What helped me the most was my husband showing me that he trusted me … If you can show trust again to the person that’s gambling, I think they recover a whole lot quicker.”

Ms McLaughlan says trust is a powerful thing for helping problem gamblers to quit their addiction, but she recognises that it’s so hard to give to a problem gambler seemingly doing nothing to deserve it.

Despite all the time she spent gambling, she says her real luck was in having a husband who was willing to stand by her side through it all.

But she says problem gambling permanently changes a person’s life.

The years she spent gambling are years she can never get back.