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Australia has a gambling problem, but is change coming?

BBC News 23/03/2023
Kate Seselja spent more than a decade battling a gambling addiction © BBC Kate Seselja spent more than a decade battling a gambling addiction

At the lowest point of her addiction, Kate Seselja sat in front of an electronic gambling machine for hours, crying as she stared at the glowing nil balance.

Her phone buzzed on an intermittent loop - her worried husband calling "a hundred times", and increasingly desperate to find her.

Overcome with feelings of dread and shame, she thought about ending her life - but didn't because she was pregnant with her sixth child.

"I was so mentally, physically, [and] emotionally done with this existence, this addiction" she tells the BBC.

"But I couldn't figure out how to take my life and not hers."

After 12 years of destructive gambling, she had lost about A$500,000 (£273,000; $336,000).

Ms Seselja's story, while shocking, is familiar to many Australians - about one in 100 have a gambling problem.

If gambling losses were averaged over Australia's entire adult population, each person would lose about A$1,200 a year, according to H2 Gambling Capital. This is significantly more than for other nations.

Driving this are electronic poker machines, or slot machines - known colloquially here as the pokies. Critics liken them to "electronic heroin".

But Australia could be on the cusp of the biggest reform to the industry since the machines were first legalised in 1956.

World's pokies hotspot

Australia has just 0.33% of the world's population, but a fifth of its pokies.

Rows of machines fill not just casinos but thousands of pubs, clubs and hotels too. Each year they rake in about $13bn - more than casinos, lotteries and sports betting combined.

Australia has about 200,000 electronic gambling machines © Reuters Australia has about 200,000 electronic gambling machines

Recent inquiries have found the machines are being used to launder money in Australia. But this is nothing compared to their personal cost, opponents say.

Often concentrated in areas of socio-economic disadvantage, the machines contribute to suicides, financial offences, domestic violence, family breakdowns and poverty, research has shown.

"You're taught about smoking and drinking alcohol, but nobody warned me about pokies," Ms Seselja says.

And so, at the age of 18, she slipped a $20 note into a machine one night at her boyfriend's urging. She instantly won hundreds.

As the lights flashed and the machine sung out, Ms Seselja remembers her heart pounding in reply. "It made me feel like I was lucky or clever."

"Every time you'd go out with friends, there was pokies available," she says. "It wasn't like I left the house thinking yes, I'm going to go gamble tonight."

But before long, Ms Seselja was feeding all her earnings into the machines. She began lying to loved ones, taking money from her family business, and maxing out credit card after credit card.

"I quickly became somebody I didn't recognise," she says, crying. "But I now hold compassion for her, because the reality is I was so unprotected, as a consumer, against addiction by design."

Researchers like Charles Livingstone say electronic gaming machines (EGMs) are designed to deliver the brain's happy chemical - dopamine - "in spades", even when players are losing money, which makes them highly addictive.

"If you wanted to look at the worst example of exploitation of a vulnerable community by a legal product that is poorly regulated, it will be hard to find a better example than the [pokies] industry in Australia," Dr Livingstone, from Monash University, tells the BBC.

The man who pioneered the use of pokies in Australia - Len Ainsworth - has previously rejected the notion they're addictive, calling it "nonsense".

"I mean, if you like something you'll continue to do it… it's like kissing girls," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2017.

Len Ainsworth pictured in the 1990s © Getty Images Len Ainsworth pictured in the 1990s

Australia's Gaming Technologies Association also defends the machines, saying they are made according to regulations which prioritise "fairness, probity, and harm minimisation" as "paramount objectives".

It also points to a failed lawsuit against a pokies manufacturer in 2018. A Federal Court judge found the applicant had not provided enough evidence that features of the machines were addictive and deceptive.

"Playing EGMs is a legitimate recreational activity that millions of Australians enjoy safely," a spokeswoman said.

Ms Seselja finds that argument ridiculous. "If it's able to take $10 from you every three seconds, that does not equal harmless entertainment," she says.

Hurdles to reform

There has been growing appetite for change in Australia - and an election on Saturday in New South Wales (NSW) could bring it.

Advocates say NSW, with half of Australia's pokies, is "the beating heart" of gambling in the nation.

The state government and opposition have committed to policies which target problem gamblers. Premier Dominic Perrottet's government has also promised - if re-elected - to require all players to set spending limits and to make all machines cash-free within five years.

The government could not continue to "profit off people's misery", according to Mr Perrottet. In 2020-21, it received almost $2bn in pokies tax revenue.

Similar strategies in Norway - and closer to home in Tasmania - have proven effective at dramatically slashing problem gambling.

"If the reforms were in place when I was 18, there's no way my life would have taken that 12-year trajectory," Ms Seselja says.

But parts of the premier's proposal have drawn staunch opposition. "Rather than banning cash, we support banning criminals and problem gamblers from club gaming rooms," said George Peponis, the chairman of lobby group ClubsNSW, in January.

Such opposition could make things difficult. Andrew Wilkie, an independent federal MP, knows this all too well.

In 2010, he negotiated similar gambling reforms with the federal government - but the deal quickly came under great pressure.

Governments were reluctant to forgo huge sources of tax income. Mr Wilkie says he found himself fighting a powerful lobby consortium led by ClubsNSW - which he argues is "akin to the National Rifle Association in the United States".

Andrew Wilkie pictured in 2010, announcing his deal with the Labor government © Getty Images Andrew Wilkie pictured in 2010, announcing his deal with the Labor government

Groups such as ClubsNSW have long been huge political and community donors in Australia, and they lobbied against the changes - arguing they jeopardised the livelihoods of clubs.

There was a wide-ranging ad campaign and lobbying of MPs. Mr Wilkie even claims his effigy was burned at one pro-gambling rally in NSW.

"They went ballistic. And they won," Mr Wilkie says. "Basically the government chickened out and pulled out of the deal."

A former NSW government minister, Victor Dominello, last week alleged similar treatment.

In response, ClubsNSW said it worked hard to represent the interests of NSW clubs and the communities they serve - in the same way that "hundreds of peak bodies and businesses [do] on a daily basis".

"Our expectation is that these activities are undertaken in an appropriate manner, and where they are not appropriate action is taken," a spokesperson said.

Reform hope

Mr Wilkie says if Mr Perrottet's government in NSW is returned to power, it could be a "watershed moment".

"You get reform in NSW, and you've cracked the nut - you get reform across half the country's poker machines."

"And the dam wall will have broken - it'll be impossible for other states not to follow suit eventually."

Ms Seselja - who is now a gambling reform advocate - is less excited. Polling has not indicated the government will be returned to power, and she has too often felt let down by politicians anyway.

But she believes community sentiment is turning and that is encouraging.

"There's a time and a place for personal responsibility, but there hasn't been a time and a place for open and honest discussion about this addiction in this country," she says.

"We're the number one gambling nation in the world, experiencing the most harm. There's something profoundly wrong there, and maybe it's not [me]."

If you are feeling emotionally distressed and would like details of organisations in the UK which offer advice and support, go to

If you are in Australia, you can call Lifeline on 131114 or the Gambling Helpline on 1800 858 858.

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