As the debate about how to address problem gambling continues in Canberra, it’s important we work towards a policy mix that curbs problem gambling without a crack down on the freedom people should have to gamble sensibly.
While some people slip through the cracks and fall into a spiral that seems so difficult to get out of, we should all remember that there’s help out there for gambling addiction. These help avenues, like 24 hour help phone lines and online services, are relatively recent and therefore we should develop them, make them better, so more people seek them out and fewer people get hurt.
When the whirlpool of gambling addiction drags you in, it’s a very strong force. I know because I’ve felt it first-hand, albeit briefly. And don’t I wish that the level of awareness and help that exists today existed back when I started gambling.
I grew up in a small country town in Western Australia in the 1970s. It was a different time and a different place. I started attending the local harness racing meetings from as young as 10 and in those days nobody blinked if a 10 year old put a bet on at the races.
Soon after I started my journey as an “apprentice” race caller. By the age of 13 I was regularly calling trials at multiple venues and by the time I was 16 I was calling fully registered race meetings. I had a photographic memory for form and sectional times and a good analytical brain. As a 15 and 16 year old, I was a very successful punter. I’d never bet big, but would often make hundreds of dollars by using the form knowledge that I had gained from spending so much time at various race tracks.
Wind the clock forward three years. I found myself working in radio on the other side of the country in Adelaide. Although I was working at a racing station, I didn’t develop the same forensic memory database of the various South Australian racing codes, but I continued to bet. More often than not I would lose.
I can remember driving from Adelaide to Kadina for a harness racing meeting and having to borrow money from an acquaintance to put petrol in the car because I’d blown all of my cash at the track. Although I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, I had a gambling problem.
I can clearly remember the events that followed that day, when I was forced to concede that I was an addicted gambler and to face up to that demon.
I thought about how out of control I had felt and I vowed to stop.
After that episode, I stepped away from gambling completely for more than a year.
These days I have a punt in moderation and enjoy it immensely. I love snagging a trifecta at the races in Canberra or getting a feature on a machine at my local club.
Like it or not, “having a punt” is a part of the fabric of Australia. We live in a nation that collectively “downs tools” on the first Tuesday in November for a horse race and remembers our fallen soldiers with a raucous game of two-up on Anzac Day.
When I was faced with demons of problem gambling I’m proud to say that I took responsibility for my behaviour. What I did in that little dark period 30 years ago was nobody’s fault but mine.
Interestingly, on my day as an ‘addicted gambler’ I went to extraordinary lengths to access funds, even though I had none available.
I feel for those who are dealing with an addiction because I had a glimpse of what it’s like, and I’d like to do whatever I can to assist them.
Addicted gamblers and those around them need to seek help. Help does not come by through simply laying the blame on other gambling institutions or anyone else.
Responsible gamblers should not be punished and their freedoms curtailed, because others gamble irresponsibly.
If you are a problem gambler, I ask you to get help, seek out the options, and if you do, you should be commended for getting it.
We need to avoid a policy mix that aims to stop gambling altogether, recognising those who gamble sensibly. Having a punt is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken away from our society.
We need to question the loss of freedom as much as the protection of the vulnerable.
Mark Parton is Liberal spokesman for gambling and racing.