Problem gamblers — am I responsible for them?

On the ABC yesterday I heard, in passing, a remark by Andrew Wilkie, the Independent MP for Denison, he of the poker machine controversy. He said that there were 95,000 problem gamblers, that millions of other people were affected by their problem, and that they had been ‘betrayed’ by the Coalition’s new policy on gambling. If I got any of that detail wrong, I beg forgiveness, but the general message he was putting out, I think, is exactly that.

And it made me think. I’m not going into whatever it is that the Coalition has decided it will do about gambling. Rather, I am interested in the notion that if the Coalition has ‘betrayed’ problem gamblers, then it must, as a potential government, be thought to have a responsibility for them. Instinctively, I don’t agree. This is an old dilemma of the welfare state: at what point do we abandon the notion that people are responsible for their own welfare?

One answer is that our society cares for its members, especially when disasters occur which the members could have done nothing to prevent — a tsunami, say, or a landslide, like the one in Thredbo in 1997. More generally, our society ensures that children are educated, and that health care is available, and that trains run on time, because these are fundamental building blocks of a functioning society. The boundaries between that and individual responsibility are a bit fuzzy, I agree.

Now Mr Wilkie could argue that problem gamblers are addicted, just as alcoholics are, and perpetual smokers also. He may be right. I know one or two professionals in the mental health arena for whom gambling is plainly an addiction. There may be a gene, they say. If we could turn it off, there would be no problem. They may be right, too.

On the other hand, the gene cannot be all-powerful. AA exists to help people who want to lose their addiction to alcohol, and it has successes.  People stop smoking, as I did in my mid twenties. Some addictions are harder to give up than others. I’m told that heroin is one. Yet those who end their apparent addiction have dealt with their problem. Should we have done it for them? I suggest not, though I think we should provide assistance for those who want to do so, and feel they need help. And our society does that, too.

Mr Wilkie wants to get rid of the poker machines. But that would deal with the symptom, not with the problem — unless the machine itself is the essence of the problem. When I was young, Australians bet on horse races even when they were not on the racecourse. They were helped by starting-price bookmakers — this was in the days before the TAB and licensed clubs, which arrived in the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were chronic gamblers then, too, including some who actually went to the course.

If Mr Wilkie were successful in limiting, let alone ending completely, the poker machine in Australia, problem gambling would not disappear in consequence. What would happen would be the transfer of the problem gamblers to another form of gambling. If he were a crusader of great power and success, and all forms of gambling were finally made illegal, then we would very quickly have illegal gambling all over again, with gangs, corrupt politicians and police, shootings and murder.

We know that this is the case because we have had it before, not just with gambling, but with prostitution and alcohol. We have it now with drugs. Yes, our society ought to be able to do better than this, but it is composed of humans. They like to experience new things, and they don’t like to be told what to do by others. We do provide a lot of assistance to people who want to get off smoking, booze, drugs and gambling, but ultimately they have to make the effort themselves. We can’t do it for them.

Mr Wilkie says that there are 95,000 problem gamblers in Australia, while an Australian Government site says that 500,000 people are, or are at risk of becoming, problem gamblers. There are other, different,  figures as well. They all seem to be estimates, and I don’t know how they have been derived.  Relationships Australia says that ‘gambling becomes a problem if someone spends more time or money than they can afford to, or if it is having a negative impact on their relationships’. I guess that’s right. But how does it become other people’s responsibility?

For a long time now I have thought that public education and high taxation are the best ways to deal with activities that people enjoy but are potentially harmful to them. Not being a gambler myself, I am happy with poker machine taxes, as well as taxes on tobacco and on drink. I’m not a member of any licensed club, but I recognise that they provide many benefits to those members who use their facilities sensibly.

You could argue that if a club sees that a particular member is acting in a manner that is harmful to him (her) and potentially harmful to his (her) wider circle, then it does have a responsibility,  at least to warn — and if necessary to suspend membership. The problem person’s friends and family are another source of influence. You could argue that they have responsibility, too.

But I don’t think I do, and by extension, I don’t think our national government has that responsibility, either. It looks too much like the nanny state for my liking.


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