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Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform - 03/05/2012 - Prevention and treatment of problem gambling

GALVIN, Ms Leah, Manager of Social Policy and Advocacy, St Luke's Anglicare

[15:17]

CHAIR: The committee welcomes Ms Galvin from St Luke's Anglicare. I invite you to make a brief opening statement before the committee proceeds to questions.

Ms Galvin : We just wanted to say thank you very much for the invitation to appear before the committee. I am based in Bendigo. St Luke's actually has a history of several years of speaking out against pokies, and we also like to try to speak on behalf of people that are vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities. We are certainly concerned about the level of pokies in disadvantaged communities and the harm it causes.

We deliver a range of community services. We are funded by state and federal government and we do actually provide gamblers help support in our area and also financial counselling. Our submission was based on a process where we had discussions with our internal workers about what they thought would be good solutions and the way that we should respond. This is in some ways based on what the research tells us might be helpful but it is also based on the wisdom of those workers who work at the coalface.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Senator MADIGAN: I see you have offices around regional Victoria. Do you find there is a difference or a greater problem with problem gambling in Maryborough than in Kyneton, for example?

Ms Galvin : There definitely is. When you look at the data that is publicly available the average spend on pokies in Maryborough is extreme versus other towns that we work in.

Senator MADIGAN: Can you give us any idea?

Ms Galvin : It is several times higher than in other places. For example, in the Castlemaine area I think it is a few hundred dollars while in Maryborough it is considerably more than that. I cannot pluck the figures off the top of my head, unfortunately.

Senator MADIGAN: Is that per week or is that—

Ms Galvin : That is per individual living in those communities, so they would be community averages. That is the data that is publicly available to anybody who wants to see it on the internet. We are fortunate in Victoria that that data is available. We do know that in the area that we work in, Loddon-Mallee, there is considerable problem gambling. There is a lot of spending in pokie machines, and that is why St Luke's chooses to speak out about it. We do hear the stories and the impacts from individuals and family members, and communities too. We are hearing a lot of feedback from various communities that are trying to push back against the rolling in of more pokies into those communities and they are very unhappy about it because they also see and understand the harm. I should also say that we actively support those community groups that are trying to speak out against more pokies being introduced, and likewise we offer support to local governments who are trying to push back against that rollout as well.

Senator MADIGAN: Does St Luke's Anglicare see a connection with the reduction in jobs, say, in Castlemaine and Maryborough in the manufacturing areas or with the flooding that we experienced in the Loddon Valley region? Was there a spike of these people being depressed from the floods or the loss of jobs in manufacturing and that sort of thing? Have you noticed a correlation there?

Ms Galvin : I cannot comment directly on that because I have not seen numbers that would support that, but to be honest I have not looked for it. But, if you think about what the evidence says and how often events which are traumatic for people can push them from being pokies flutterers to problem gamblers, I would expect that there must be some increase. The evidence would bear that out. I have not personally observed it, but then I have not looked for it either. Certainly when communities are fragile like that there are higher chances that that might trigger problem gambling, although I think there is also some contrary evidence that says that when people are financially constrained they actually gamble less. So both of those stories sort of run in parallel with each other. Certainly we observed with the pokies gambling in the post-GFC period that there was actually a drop in pokies gambling, but unfortunately that situation has reversed and it is now increasing. But again that data is publically available. I am not presenting anything that you could not get your fingers on easily.

Senator MADIGAN: As far as population goes, do you see any correlation in where these things are put? Is there a greater concentration, say, in Maryborough than in Bendigo?

Ms Galvin : I think generally speaking across the state of Victoria we know that there is a higher concentration of pokie machines where there are higher levels of disadvantage. That disadvantage is measured by indicators like the SEIFA. I know that in the Maryborough township there are many more pokie machines than there are in, say, Castlemaine, the neighbouring township. There is also a much lower spend in Castlemaine than in Maryborough. The evidence says that the more there are the more people gamble, and we do see that in those figures.

Senator MADIGAN: Thank you.

Ms Galvin : When it increases the risk increases as well, obviously.

Senator MADIGAN: Thank you.

CHAIR: Certainly in your observation, then, the industry targets disadvantaged areas.

Ms Galvin : I will speak from my experience at St Luke's, but I also used to work out in the city of Greater Dandenong many years ago too. There were a very high number of machines in that area, which has high levels of disadvantaged people as well. Do they target it? I think they must, because that is where they pop up. I have never seen an internal policy document, but that is where those venues do emerge. And, of course, it is often in those communities where people perhaps have less capacity to push back against more machines being introduced. So they do feel very much at the mercy of it—although we are now seeing a lot of community reaction to more pokies wanting to be introduced. There are some terrific community groups which we think really merit some strong support.

There is enormous amount of frustration in Victorian communities about the pokie venues almost being rubber stamped through the process. Lots of local government funding—and we mentioned this in our submission; hundred of thousands of dollars—is being spent trying to defend the position of people who live in those communities. They have a strong policy setting and they might have gaming policy documents, so they have said. And that is on behalf of their communities—but that is not sufficient to stop large increases in the number of machines.

That is really distressing and it is causing a lot of hardship in those communities. There are some really serious arguments going on about it and it is dividing communities. We have seen that in several communities in recent times. Despite every single survey that local governments conduct show that basically 70 per cent plus of the people in the community say that they do not want more machines, we see increasing numbers of machines every year and increasing numbers of problem gamblers. I think the data from Ballarat shows that, for every machine, 0.8 people will become problem gamblers. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. It affects their families, their communities and the places they work. So people do feel very strongly about trying to stop that push, but they feel powerless. That does not mean that they stop trying. There is an enormous amount of energy for it, but it has not been successful to date here in Victoria.

Senator XENOPHON: Picking up on that statistic, you said that for every machine there is 0.8 problem gamblers. Is that right?

Ms Galvin : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: How many machines are there in Victoria—about 26,000 or 27,000?

Ms Galvin : I do not know the total number of machines in Victoria, but I recently heard an academic from Ballarat—I would have to get you the reference for that research—say that for every new machine that is introduced there are 0.8 problem gamblers. It is a strange number to use, isn't it?

Senator XENOPHON: It might be new machines.

Ms Galvin : Yes, new machines.

Senator XENOPHON: I think the figure is higher in Victoria. Although there is a small number of machines proportionally when compared to New South Wales, the machines here seem to work harder, in a sense, with a greater loss per machine. New South Wales is not that much greater in terms of problem gambling rates.

Ms Galvin : That is an interesting point that you raise, as it relates to one of our other concerns. It is a strange way to describe it, but some machines are safer than others. With the new generation of machines you can lose much more money much faster. There does not seem to be any real restriction on venues, once they have a licence, replacing these lower-loss machines with higher-loss machines. You in fact increase the damage even though you do not have extra licences. So there is the potential for that as well. I do not know if other have spoken about that before the committee.

Senator XENOPHON: I know I sound like a broken record. I started asking this question of Dr Thomas earlier today about the level of help for problem gambling and that only about 10 per cent of problem gamblers actually seek help. You mentioned that one way of getting more people to get help is to have strengthened local promotion of problem gambling help services.

Ms Galvin : Yes.

Senator XENOPHON: I think that is a good idea. The only query I have in relation to that is that one of the issues that is raised when I speak to problem gamblers is that they are worried about the stigma involved. How do you get around the fact that if it is a local service they might think that the locals might find out about? Do some problem gamblers prefer to go outside their area to get help in case they are seen walking into an agency or service? Does it have to be almost like a generic service, so that people do not know that you are going in specifically for that sort of help?

Ms Galvin : Our service, Gambler's Help, is collocated along with other services in the same building, and there is not a great big sign saying 'Gambler's Help here'. So anybody walking in off the street could be going into, for example, our financial counselling service as well or any of the other community services that we offer. I would agree that it is stigmatised, so you need to be careful.

Senator XENOPHON: So you can keep it local, but you make the emphasis that it is almost a generic help-building so that you do not have that problem. That makes sense to me. That would help.

Ms Galvin : You raise an interesting question. Regarding the presentation prior to me, from Turning Point, it was good that they were thinking that there should also be a suite of options for how people can opt in for getting support. We would certainly think that was a good idea because not everybody is comfortable with a face-to-face situation. What we hear from our workers is that often, when people link in with them, before they called the major 1300 line, the intake line, they did not even know that Gamblers Help was available locally. That might be because they were not ready to seek help, but the workers say to me that they think it is because there is a low level of awareness about the availability of the service beyond the helpline and that is potentially problematic. It would be good for people to know that there are all those options available to them, so we would agree with the previous presentation before you.

CHAIR: Is it true that there are restrictions on your ability to advertise locally?

Ms Galvin : Yes.

CHAIR: Why?

Ms Galvin : I hope I am getting this right. I would be happy to be corrected on it. The idea is that everybody goes through the central intake service and then they are referred to local services. We see that as one of the weaknesses of it. It would be good if those calls were directed straight to the local service providers so that there is an opportunity for people to be able to immediately help—I can provide outreach or whatever. I do not know why that is, beyond them perhaps wanting to collect some very strong data, although there is an enormous amount of data collected through Gamblers Help already. Often we do not hear much analysis on that, so that is problematic. I cannot really speak to why that policy decision was taken. We would like to be able to promote the service much more locally and we think that would make a significant difference. The workers certainly cannot go out into the public domain, to the media or newspapers, and speak out about problem gambling. There is a community education worker who runs terrific courses, including in the school setting, which is great, but they cannot speak out publicly.

Senator XENOPHON: Should they be able to speak out publicly in some structured way?

Ms Galvin : It would be really interesting if the data that they feed into the central system around Gamblers Help were more available. That would tell the story of problem gamblers and their experience with the service and what the success rates are. I have never seen any in-depth analysis that has come from that data. They are asked to contribute a lot. I hope I have answered that question. Perhaps I have not. I might have lost my way there.

Senator DI NATALE: Following up on this specific issue, who determines that workers cannot speak out? Is that a local—

Ms Galvin : It is part of the agreement that we have as a service provider.

Senator XENOPHON: It is a gag order, Senator Di Natale.

Ms Galvin : I would have to say that it is all the colours of government that do that. It is not a political commentary.

Senator DI NATALE: So it is not a St Luke's Anglicare policy. You are saying that this is a condition under which you operate.

Ms Galvin : That is right. At the same time, as an organisation, we are quite within our rights to sit before this committee and make submissions and those sorts of things about our concerns, so I would not say that it is some sort of total gag, because that is not the case at all.

Senator DI NATALE: Could you issue a press release and go out and talk to local papers or a state paper on an issue of concern around government policy?

Ms Galvin : About pokies?

Senator DI NATALE: Yes.

Ms Galvin : We do that all the time.

Senator DI NATALE: So what does the gag order apply to?

Ms Galvin : The Gamblers Help workers themselves cannot directly go out and make statements, but as an organisation I can take information that I have learned from my colleagues and use it to inform and support my work in social policy and advocacy. There is a line there, but we are quite free to speak about pokies and our concern, and we are very worried about them.

Senator DI NATALE: Can I just make one more point?

CHAIR: Take the time you need to.

Senator DI NATALE: Ms Galvin, all of the questions are directed through a central state-wide number?

Ms Galvin : That is right.

Senator DI NATALE: What is the process for those being referred locally? Does that happen immediately or are details collected—can you talk me through the situation. I have a problem; I ring up the Gamblers Help line; I live in Bendigo; what happens next?

Ms Galvin : That central line is like an intake process. They would do an assessment of what the person might need at that time. Perhaps they need that quick and fast intervention; that might be all they need. Maybe they are not far enough along to want to seek one-on-one. But they are offered all of the different options that are available. Then, if they choose to seek to have one-on-one counselling with our Gamblers Help workers, then that referral would be sent to us, and they would make an appointment and start on the process for treatment.

Senator DI NATALE: But how does that happen? The reason I am asking this question is I am aware that when somebody decides they have a problem there is often only a narrow window of time in which you can act. If you miss the boat—and it might just be a day later—they might not be inclined to follow up on what they did the day before. So is there a delay? The assessment is done initially through the initial phone call. How long does it take before contact is made with a local service provider?

Ms Galvin : I understand that varies. It depends when people call. If they call after-hours—we do not provide an after-hours service locally. I understand there sometimes is a delay and sometimes it is very fast.

Senator DI NATALE: The reasons for the delay, what would they be?

Ms Galvin : I do not know. I do not understand what might be the delay. I do not know if it is a computer thing or—

Senator DI NATALE: That is fine. Thank you.

Ms Galvin : But I also understand that the people at the central intake system also have a quota system where they are supposed to support a certain number of people per year. So I do not know if that means that people then perhaps get streamed into being supported by them initially and then referred on. I do not know that exact detail. I am sorry.

Senator DI NATALE: That is interesting to follow up. Thank you.

Ms BRODTMANN: Ms Galvin, going back to your comments about your local people not being able to speak out, it could just be a media management issue. You can speak out. Rather than having a whole lot of people working with Anglicare speaking out, it is just a media management issue. In a way it is just containing who is speaking to the media.

Ms Galvin : It is not actually our policy; it is the Gamblers Help line.

Ms BRODTMANN: But I am just saying. I am just wondering. The suggestion is that it could be a gag order, but it sounds like it could just be a media management approach.

Ms Galvin : I would agree with that. And it probably is so that the messages do not get too mixed up.

Ms BRODTMANN: That is exactly it

Ms Galvin : I would agree with that.

Ms BRODTMANN: And you are the ones who, are in a way, contracted to that organisation, so you can act as a spokesperson for the organisation rather than having everyone else down the line do it as well.

Ms Galvin : I would agree with that.

Ms BRODTMANN: I just wanted to clarify that. Thank you. In your submission you make reference to the noises and sounds that are going on in poker machines. You have concerns about the fact that even when people are losing they get the impression through sound that they could potentially be winning. I thought that was an interesting observation.

I have two things to talk about. Firstly, do you notice a difference between the number of problem gamblers in Albury and those, say, on the border or elsewhere in Victoria? I am thinking Albury would have had a long tradition of poker machines whereas in Victoria, as you know, it has been—how long?—20 years, if that. I am wondering if there is a higher incidence in Victoria—given that it is still relatively new—than in Albury.

Ms Galvin : I cannot make an observation on that. I am sorry. I do not have data for that.

Ms BRODTMANN: That is fine. Secondly, what proportion of people you look after are from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds?

Ms Galvin : Because we are based in rural and regional Victoria, where there is a much lower percentage from culturally diverse backgrounds, it is a very small percentage, which is basically the same as the overall population.

Ms BRODTMANN: So you think it represents the population in those areas?

Ms Galvin : Yes.

CHAIR: I am intrigued by something here. It seems the councils do not have much say in where these poker machines are put. There is a reference here to the Whittlesea council spending over half a million dollars to fight the introduction of poker machines.

Ms Galvin : In Victoria we have a cap system. I am not sure how many years old that is, but basically I think it might have been based on there being allowed to be a certain number of machines per thousand people in the population. That meant that licences would be available over time up to that cap. It was set several years ago, and at that point in time, of course, it meant that there would be the potential for far more machines to be introduced into communities. With the sale of licences the year before last, there are now these ongoing processes in several jurisdictions where new or existing venue operators have applied for new machines to be installed. I have tried to make the point before that councils often have local gaming policies which acknowledge the harm of pokies. For example, they might not want them in a specific location close to a disadvantaged population or close to main shopping precincts—that sort of thing—so they are not too easy to access. They have done a lot of consultation work to determine those policies, but then, under the regulatory process through which they go in Victoria currently, the venue operators will apply for those machines to be installed. Then, of course, there is an expectation that the councils will respond because they have had that conversation with their communities. That is where an extreme cost comes in.

I can only speak to the recent past regulatory body; I am not sure how the new one is going to work here in Victoria, because it has changed. They were supposed to make an assessment based on the social and economic impact of pokies. It seems—actually, the numbers will show this if you look at the judgments that have been made—that it is almost impossible for local governments to make a case that the social impacts outweigh the economic impacts. We have seen judgments, for example, where they have said things like that the council are biased because they have a policy that is anti pokies—which is, of course, ironic given that venue operators have a very strong financial bias in their applications. So communities are very frustrated by that. It does not matter how hard they work at it or how many people say they do not like it; it can still get pushed through and rubber-stamped. Then, of course, the next process is that they go off to the VCAT, which is a tribunal which has a slightly different way of taking decisions. But that is also a very expensive and lengthy process and also does not have terrific results for communities. So, despite these surveys saying that 70-plus per cent of people do not want more, it is rubber-stamped and machines are rolling out all over the place. That is how it feels in lots of communities in Victoria at the moment.

CHAIR: There was one well-publicised win. I cannot remember the name of the town.

Ms Galvin : Romsey?

CHAIR: Romsey. How did they succeed?

Ms Galvin : I do not know all of the inner workings, except to say that that community did not have any pokies in it at all. Often the battles which are being lost repeatedly are where the installation of more machines is being asked for, so it is an increase. So that seems to be a harder argument to make to regulatory bodies. The other thing is that we would say—again, this is not a political statement—that those regulatory bodies are effectively the arm of government. Here in Victoria we know that for the state government—again, for all political persuasions—somewhere around 12 to 14 per cent of their revenues come from pokies; I think that is the latest figure. That is from non-government sources. I think it is hard when you rely on those revenues, particularly in financially challenging times. I wonder how conflicted you are then to make a decision that is really about what communities want versus what the state finances might need. Again, all political persuasions are involved in that. This is not political commentary.

CHAIR: Of course not. Do you have self-exclusion arrangements in your part of Victoria?

Ms Galvin : We do, though I understand that it is a manual system. I think this is one of the weaknesses. People can self-exclude, and there is a process that you go through to do that. I think you can do it either through the venue or through, again, a regulatory body. But sometimes those systems are really quite ad hoc; they might have pictures of you in a security area or something like that, and so if the security people are not alert it would be quite easy for you to pass through.

This is one of the things where we think that greater protection could be offered for problem gamblers who have made that decision that they want to reduce or stop their gambling. I have heard of a system where there is almost like a swipe-in, so there is some sort of identification that is needed before people can proceed into venues. I understand it operates in some of the clubs in New South Wales; if people have self-excluded, the moment they try to swipe themselves into the venue—I am sure it is not all bells and whistles—they are discreetly removed from the venue.

It would be really great to strengthen that part of our system, because it is not strong. We do hear stories about people who have self-excluded because of their difficulties with gambling still being in venues and losing vast sums of money.

CHAIR: And in fairness to the staff in some of these venues, even the very best staff struggle to cross-reference hundreds of photos with thousands of people walking through the door.

Ms Galvin : Yes. I totally agree with that. It is certainly not any commentary about their capacity or their willingness; it is just that the system is not very strong. It makes it very hard for them actually to do the right thing by people who have tried to self-exclude as well.

CHAIR: What would you like to see the federal government do right now to help?

Ms Galvin : That is a simple one for us: no more machines—the pokies. We know that that would be a difficult thing to do, but the reality is that we know that the more machines that get put in the more harm that is done. We are also concerned about the economic harm to communities as well. I have not really mentioned that today, but money that goes into pokie venues does not go into local businesses. This means there are reduced opportunities for employment. In regional and rural cities this is a really big problem. Really, for us, it is a simple one. We have enough machines and, in fact, that is what we campaign on in the Loddon Mallee with a bunch of other faith based organisations. We have been running a campaign saying 'enough is enough'. Others have tweaked onto that as well. But we do think that there are more than enough machines, because there is certainly more than enough harm.

CHAIR: What are your favourite harm minimisation measures with the machines you do have?

Ms Galvin : We like any harm minimisation measure! I think the $1 bet, so that you can reduce the amount of money that can be lost in an hour—given how people behave when they are in front of the machines—would be really great. I think that is a really simple solution, but we also support the other ideas that are being espoused as well; although we think that there are potential weaknesses in the choosing how much you gamble before you do system, and that it will not be that hard for people to manipulate it or to get around it. You would have to design such an airtight system that I think there might be vulnerabilities with that. So we would go for the $1 bet.

There is also putting coins into machines rather than dollars, because it takes a lot longer and you have to think about it. The other one we like, too—and it was mentioned earlier—was ensuring that people who work in the venues feel that they have the capacity to speak to somebody whom they are concerned about, who has been sitting at the machine for a long period of time. We do know that if they interrupt people when they are in the zone that can have people stop and reassess what they are doing. So having the workers feel empowered to do that and trained to do that would be really great as well.

CHAIR: Ms Galvin, thank you so much for that.

Ms Galvin : Thank you for the opportunity.

CHAIR: That has been very helpful. We are very grateful for your time. If you have got to travel back to Bendigo in this weather, safe travels to you.

Ms Galvin : I am on a train. I am fine, thank you.

CHAIR: Testimony like yours, coming from the coal face, it is very important to the committee. It is certainly worth your time in coming down from Bendigo. Thank you for the work you do.

Ms Galvin : Thank you to the committee for looking at it.

CHAIR: That concludes today's public hearing. I thank all witnesses for their evidence and all observers for their interest in the committee's work. I now adjourn the hearing.

Committee adjourned at 15 : 50