Poker machine reform: Why Christians should care

From two church ministers leading the charge

The Anglican Dean of Sydney, Sandy Grant, and Wesley Mission CEO Stu Cameron are passionate about poker machine reform – so passionate that this week they sent a joint letter (reprinted below) to the NSW Premier and Opposition Leader calling for action.

The main driver behind their campaign to police the pokies is their Christian faith.

“I’m passionate about it because of my Christian conviction that this is a justice issue – that vulnerable people, the poor in particular, are being exploited by what is a really predatory industry that is designed to addict. Change has to happen,” Stu Cameron, a Uniting Church minister, told Eternity.

“We hear and see first-hand the carnage that poker machines can cause in families.” – Stu Cameron, Wesley Mission

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Cameron has seen the debilitating impact of poker machines through his work at Wesley Mission.

“Wesley Mission was the first organisation in the country to have a gambling counselling service. We have gambling counsellors, financial counsellors, our Lifeline services,” he says.

“We hear and see first-hand the carnage that poker machines can cause in families. It’s not just the people directly who are impacted; it’s their families [as well]. It has a multiplier effect in terms of the misery it causes. We’re passionate about this because real harm has been done to real people, and real change is possible – in fact, it’s fundamentally necessary.”

Similarly, Sandy Grant’s experience of ministering to those affected by gambling has fuelled his Christian desire to serve those in need.

“I started my ministry in the Fairfield/ Cabramatta area as a very young, naive minister. It’s one of our poorest Sydney LGAs and it has one of the highest concentrations of poker machines,” he said on ABC Radio Sydney this morning.

“The club that was nearest where I lived in Mount Pritchard … [was] mammoth and growing. In fact, they tried to import gaming machines from richer areas of Sydney because they would be more productive in their area.

“It’s just heartbreaking to see, even where we are [now at St Andrew’s Cathedral] in the inner city, the big casino sends out buses to suburbs like Cabramatta to bring people in to sit at the poker machines. It’s awful the way this industry can work.”

“The community is aching for a conversation around these sorts of reforms.” – Stu Cameron

The cause so moves Grant and Cameron that they decided to write an open letter to Dominic Perrottet, Premier of NSW, and Chris Minns, Leader of the NSW Labor Party, calling for bipartisan support for poker machine reform in the state.

“We recognised that we are in a unique situation leading up to the [state] election in March next year,” Cameron told Eternity. “It’s an opportunity for the community, the broader community and the church, in particular, to be speaking to our public representatives about what’s important for us. And we think this is a critical issue for our community.

“We also think there’s real momentum for change. We think – and this is reflected in the conversation this morning on the ABC [during the talkback program featuring Sandy Grant] – that people are fed up with the all-pervasive nature of the gambling industry in particular, but poker machines as well. And people want to see real reform … We think the community is aching for a conversation around these sorts of reforms.”

Cameron continued: “We certainly think that in the Christian community, there’s broad support, a consistent support, for reform. But it’s not just within the Christian community – there’s support in the community from people with good conscience as well.”

Grant clarified that the pair are not “calling to ban all gambling – that’s a matter, in a free society, of people’s choice,” he said on ABC Radio Sydney.

Rather, they are calling for “airbags on pokies” – that is to implement experts’ recommendations about how to minimise the harm done by poker machines. These recommendations are listed in Grant and Cameron’s open letter.

“This particular form is more damaging or more addictive. It’s just like we saw tobacco has addictive elements to it and so needed extra regulation,” said Grant.

“We are laser-like in our focus on the pokies because they are very psychologically developed conditioning machines, with the bells, the whistles, the colours, the losses disguised as near-wins, setting off the dopamine response and sucking people in. It’s a highly addictive methodology and impacts some people disproportionately.”

“We thank God that both of you have a strong social justice conscience …”

In their letter, Grant and Cameron appealed to the “social justice conscience” of Perrottet and Minns, saying, “We thank God that both of you have a strong social justice conscience. We have heard you each express concern about the devastating impact of gambling harm in our state.”

They also included Bible verses to drive home their point: “The Bible says, ‘Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God’ (Proverbs 14:31). The Bible also reminds rulers to ‘Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy’ (Proverbs 31:9).”

While some critics have argued that poker machine reform is a political issue in which the church should not interfere, Cameron stresses that, in fact, it’s an issue that should spur Christians into action.

“The gospel is good news for the poor and release for the prisoner. In announcing the Kingdom, Jesus proclaimed a message that has implications for all of life.

“I passionately believe in the primacy of Jesus’ message being around reconciling us to God and to each other. I think an outworking of that is the invitation he offers us to work for justice in the world,” he said.

“What common ground could we find to take meaningful steps to put ‘airbags’ on pokies.” – Sandy Grant, Anglican Dean of Sydney

Grant addressed another common argument levelled at those seeking poker machine reform: that the revenue generated for the NSW government through taxes on poker machines – $2 billion a year – will prevent reform from ever happening.

However, Grant is hoping that commonsense might prevail. “The money not spent on the pokies won’t disappear from the economy. It will still benefit, in far more productive ways, other parts of the economy,” he said.

“And Stu and I would love Mr Minns and Mr Perrotet out of just the reason they went into politics, to help people, to put aside partisan advantage and sit down with the two of us for an open-minded conversation to see where could we start – what common ground could we find to take meaningful steps to put ‘airbags’ on pokies.”

The pair have received an acknowledgment from the Premier’s office that their letter is “under consideration,” but haven’t yet heard from Chris Minn’s office.

In the meantime, their focus is on continuing to care for those affected by poker machines and other gambling.

“One of the issues that people face is the deep, deep shame that can even lead to thoughts of self-harm because of the impact they brought on not only themselves but also their families,” said Grant.

“As a Christian, we believe in forgiveness. Yes, you’ve got to face consequences in this world sometimes, but we do believe in forgiveness.

“I would want people to know that they are valuable even if they’ve made a mess of their lives. Call out to God for help and certainly, call out to trusted friends for help, call the gambling helpline.”

Cameron also directed those struggling with gambling, as well as their loved ones, to seek support from the following service:

GambleAware NSW – 1800 858 858 

Free, confidential advice and support 24/7

Following is the full text of the open letter by Rev. Stu Cameron, CEO and Superintendent, Wesley Mission, and Very Rev. Sandy Grant, Dean of Sydney, St Andrew’s Cathedral.

Open Letter calling for Bipartisan Poker Machine Reform in NSW
25 Sep

To: The Hon. Dominic Perrottet, MP, Premier of NSW, The Hon. Chris Minns, MP, Opposition Leader

From: Stu Cameron, CEO and Superintendent, Wesley Mission and Sandy Grant, Anglican Dean of Sydney

Dear Premier and Mr Minns,

Grace and peace to you. We pray for you and your fellow parliamentarians often.

Australians are the world’s most prolific gamblers, with poker machines causing over half our losses. So, we ask you to form a ‘unity ticket’ for poker machine reform to leave NSW a legacy that reaches past party politics.

NSW has about double (or worse) the rate of poker machine losses compared to every other Australian state and territory. About 40% of all poker machine losses come from people experiencing significant harm from gambling. Worse still, the highest losses are concentrated in the poorest LGAs in Sydney.

As pastors, we can’t remain silent as we hear from people experiencing gambling addiction, who are at risk of physical self-harm, family members impacted by gambling harm facing repossession of a car or furniture, or even children going hungry.

For this reason, we invite you both to meet with the two of us to discuss bipartisan reform towards meaningful poker machine harm minimisation.

We thank God that both of you have a strong social justice conscience. We have heard you each express concern about the devastating impact of gambling harm in our state.

It is urgent that you act now. Recent research reports the prevalence of harmful gambling has continued to rise over the last decade. The NSW Treasury budget papers project taxes on gaming devices in clubs and hotels alone will grow to over $2 billion in the next financial year, with an average annual growth rate of 12.55% over the next four years. And gambling taxation is rising as a share of NSW Government revenue.

We lament that it could be said NSW and its government have the world’s biggest, most destructive gambling addiction, and a growing reliance on a truly regressive and socially destructive form of taxation.

The Bible says,

“Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honours God” (Proverbs 14:31).
The Bible also reminds rulers to “Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9).

We are not interested in political point-scoring or partisan politics. We believe that there are concrete reforms that both the government and the opposition can commit to in the long term, for example:

  • $1 bet limits on all poker machines (recommended by Productivity Commission);
  • a cashless gaming smart card system (commended by the Bergin Inquiry);
  • longer compulsory shut down periods for all poker machine venues, e.g. midnight – 10 am,
  • limiting the maximum number of gaming machines in clubs,
  • giving local councils the right to limit the number of gaming machines in their LGA, and;
  • mandating that all future gaming device technology be capable of implementing such measures.

An important first step to signal a bipartisan approach would be both to commit to not signing any new MOUs with the NSW pubs and clubs industry regarding poker machine regulation. MOUs before previous state elections have limited the conversation around meaningful gambling reform and harm minimisation.

We eagerly await your replies to our invitation.

With warm regards,

Rev. Stu Cameron                                           Very Rev. Sandy Grant
CEO and Superintendent, Wesley Mission     Dean of Sydney, St Andrew’s Cathedral