It is time for action on pokies – The Mercury, February 2017

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Talking Point: It is time for action on pokies

MEG WEBB, Mercury

February 7, 2017

I THINK of 2016 as the year that the citizens of many Western democracies collectively opened their windows and yelled: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this any more!”

The Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump and the resurgence in Australia of One Nation all demonstrated that everyday citizens felt disconnected from political processes governing their lives. They don’t want business as usual, and they want their voices to be heard.

In a small place such as Tasmania, it should be eminently possible for citizens to be heard and have a say in shaping the direction for our state.

This week we have that chance on an important issue.

The parliamentary hearings into the future of gaming markets are a significant opportunity for the voices of the Tasmanian community to be heard. And when it comes to the issue of poker machines, this is a first.

The State Government is to be congratulated for establishing a community conversation on this issue and providing an open and transparent process for considering which path forward is in the best interests of the Tasmanian people.

We are talking about this at a time when Tasmania is on the brink of new and exciting opportunities to thrive — shared aspiration and a vision of success in which we can all sign up. Our challenge is to ensure that all Tasmanians are able to be part of that vision.

We know that when some of us are left behind, it limits the opportunities of everyone.

As a community, we have a clear task to reach out to those who are vulnerable, to clear the way for those who face extra barriers and to support those who find circumstances are against them.

So we look to the State Government to lead the way.

This is a Government that takes pride in its values. It has a stated focus on health, mental health and preventive health, and on boosting educational outcomes, participation in employment and public safety. This is the Government which led a whole-of-government strategy on family violence.

The effect of the community conversation and strategy on family violence transformed the issue from one that would not have appeared in the top-five priorities of Tasmanian voters — a private issue, rarely spoken of and not always well-understood — to one that the majority of voters now understand is an issue that affects the whole community.

The State Government, with admirable tripartisan support, listened to those affected and recognised that family violence was not an isolated issue — it linked to health, housing and homelessness, educational outcomes, participation in employment and social cohesion. It took decisive action in the best interests of the Tasmanian people.

A similar historical opportunity exists now for the State Government to act on the issue of poker machines and the harm they cause to Tasmanians, our communities and economy.

Studies show that while people are now less reluctant to speak of family violence, problem gambling remains a shameful secret — a secret that is detrimental to individuals, families, employers and our state as a whole.

Good governments do not confine themselves only to acting on hot-button voter issues at election time. Good governments understand that some social issues, such as family violence and gambling problems, are difficult to talk about. They involve stigma and shame and private torment. Good governments are prepared to listen and sensitively tackle these more hidden social issues.

We saw our representatives do it on family violence — they can do as much good for our state on the issue of poker machines.

We stand at a pivotal moment on this issue — 2017 is the 20th anniversary of the introduction of poker machines into pubs and clubs in Tasmania. Consistently during this time, poll after poll has told us that four out of five Tasmanians do not believe their community has benefited from having poker machines in local venues.

During this 20-year experiment, poker machines in pubs and clubs have taken about $2 billion from the pockets of Tasmanian people. Almost $1 billion (40 per cent) of that has come from those who have a gambling problem.

In the best interests of our state, it is time to listen to the voices of the Tasmanian community and ensure these shocking statistics don’t continue. It is time to remove poker machines from pubs and clubs.

Over the next few weeks our parliamentarians will hear directly from Tasmanian people and communities, they will hear from experts and academics, and they will hear from those who have financial vested interests in poker machines.

The only certain outcome is that we will not be left with business as usual. Something will change.

By listening to the people, our leaders can make that a change that delivers a better future for all Tasmanians.

Meg Webb is the manager of the Social Action and Research Centre, Anglicare Tasmania.