Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (17:01): I rise today to participate in the grievance debate, and I am grateful for the opportunity, which does not come around too frequently. But ironically this opportunity to grieve comes on 1 December, which actually marks 20 years to the day since my father’s sudden passing. So I firstly grieve for my mum, my siblings, my father’s grandchildren and his network of friends. My dad, affectionately known as ‘Pud’, is sorely missed and never forgotten.
But my main grievance today is for all those Victorians who have been impacted by the harm that gambling, alcohol and drugs can cause, and in that context I also grieve for family, friends and colleagues of those same persons, given they are often hurt by and have to contend with the pain that addiction can cause. Today I attended a forum hosted by the Alliance for Gambling Reform, which provides an opportunity for people who have been subject to significant gambling harm to tell their story and who also tendered evidence to the Royal Commission into the Casino Operator and Licence. I was certainly buoyed by the strength and courage of the individuals who were in attendance today. As was remarked, by sharing their journey to the royal commission it was one of the first times that many with lived experience felt the hope of being heard, and I commend those people for having the courage to speak up. There is an undeniable link between poor mental health and addiction, and this certainly comes through strongly in many platforms, including the forum I attended today. The inducements and the seduction to the punter or gambler is also obvious when you read through some of the heartbreaking submissions.
Of course not all gambling harm is related to a casino or electronic gaming machines, but one thing that all persons impacted by gambling harm have in common is the crippling effects of shame, humiliation and regret that can lead to financial ruin, interactions with the judicial system, relationship breakdowns and frequent suicidal thoughts. One other consistent theme is that due to the shame people feel they become isolated, vulnerable and alone. Invariably even those closest to them have no concept or idea of their pain. The secretive and detached-from-reality lifestyle only further leads to a decline in one’s mental health. I applaud those who now have the strength and courage to speak up and share their own journey and story in the hope that we can collectively make a difference and minimise the harm to individuals and families into the future.
By way of a recent adjournment debate I conveyed to the Parliament a report that was undertaken by a parliamentary intern of mine, Georgina Stephens. Georgina’s report went to the heart of how poor mental health can lead to addictive behaviours. The associated stigma, shame and humiliation can lead to a higher incidence of suicides in this cohort of people. My strong fear is that the COVID situation will have only exacerbated and increased the incidence of poor mental health issues amongst our community, meaning that people can fall into those harmful and addictive behaviours. Whether it be alcohol, drugs or gambling, either way you look at the situation it is quite disturbing, particularly with trends now telling us that online gambling, for example, has exploded in the past 21 months.
Whilst I am not against the notion of someone’s rights to gamble, I am particularly concerned about the manner in which a number of sports and betting companies are seemingly trying to attract new customers during a time when people’s mental health could be compromised and people are potentially vulnerable. When you consider the depth and breadth of gambling advertising on our television screens over previous months, it is very worrying. One can only presume that these same companies can advertise to the extent that they are because they are profitable. However, for them to be profitable it means that people, punters, have to be losing money, and that is a concern.
As a society we have a responsibility to minimise and reduce harm to our citizens. Governments have a duty of care to protect their citizens from harm, yet I would argue we are not doing this anywhere near well enough from the perspective of gambling. It is well recognised that alcohol and drug abuse are deemed health issues in the community and in the judicial system, but I am not sure we can say the same applies to gambling. There are limitations on advertising when it comes to legal activities, such as smoking and alcohol, but the same does not apply to gambling, seemingly not. It seems the authorities in charge of gambling advertising are oblivious to the problems that gambling can cause.
In my view, we need greater regulation of online gambling companies and their activities. If you consider the myriad of companies where punters can activate an online betting account, it is just amazing the breadth at the moment. Let us say in a lucid moment that a punter closes down an account or self-excludes themselves from their online betting account, there is absolutely nothing stopping this same person the very next day from opening up another account with a different company. That is something I think is wrong, and we need greater oversight and governance so we can stop a person being able to bunny hop from one gambling account or platform to another.
In the event that a punter has closed or self-excluded themselves from an online account, why can’t we look to or consider having a cooling-off period before one is able to activate a new betting account? For example, why can’t we have a regulator in place that has oversight of all of the online gambling companies that operate in Australia? Why couldn’t we have a cooling off period of, say, 14 days for persons who have previously closed or self-excluded from an online betting account? To me it makes logical sense, and I firmly believe if such a measure was in place it would save lives. I think the cooling-off period is a crucial component to give the person time to reflect, receive any interim support that they need and seriously consider if indeed it is their desire to open up another account. I think people would second-guess and really reflect on whether they would want to do that. I believe there is a will from government, so we should actually be considering this seriously.
In Georgina’s intern report she also made a recommendation that Victoria adopt South Australia’s model of gambling intervention program that operates in their judicial system. It operates similarly to Victoria’s Drug Court. In South Australia let us say a gambler has some low-level criminal offences. They can be issued a treatment order that compels the offender to receive mental health and other supports in lieu of being sent to jail. It is a real problem and something that has come up in a practical sense to me recently. When I released Georgina’s report and made a social media Facebook post about the same I was contacted by a local gambling counsellor who said the following. This is an extract of what she said to me, and I will quickly read it out to you:
[QUOTE AWAITING VERIFICATION]
Mr Northe, I have lived and worked in the community sector in the Gippsland region for many years. After reading your thoughts regarding mental health and addictions you have given me insight into your world and reminded me not to judge others. I am currently working as a financial counsellor with the Gambler’s Help program, and I wish to thank you for highlighting the issues many Gippslanders face with mental health and addictions. Due to the stigma of gambling it is difficult for us to get people to discuss the problems they face and what the social reactions are. There are many people in our community that suffer due to this issue. With every gambler there are seven to 10 people affected. I agree there needs to be more done in the court system around gambling, as I see it first-hand. What is also needed are lawyers that are educated in gambling addiction. Most lawyers are judgemental and do not understand the addiction of gambling. Clients often do not have a chance and end up with hefty penalties. I just wanted to let you know that your thoughts, honesty and knowledge are most welcome and needed for our community.
Those who have experienced gambling harm deserve an opportunity to get well and be treated from a health and mental health perspective, hence I believe the South Australian gambling intervention program should at least be trialled here in Victoria. Why is it that in Victoria persons who have committed low-level criminal offences relating to an alcohol or drug addiction, for example, can have their case heard at a Drug Court and have a treatment order handed down, which means the offender can receive counselling, support and rehabilitation, and rightly so, yet if a person has committed a crime relating to their gambling addiction, they are not afforded the same opportunity, support and assistance, unlike in South Australia? The reality is whether it is drugs, alcohol or gambling, the associated shame, humiliation and regret are crippling to the individual and their family and friends.
The question of why you cannot just stop is a valid question, and the answer in the majority of cases is simply that the person is too unwell to stop; of course they would if they could. From what I have learned and from what I know to be true, it is incredibly difficult to stop such destructive behaviours unless you come from a place of stable mental health. Unfortunately some like to portray people affected by drug, alcohol or gambling harm as bad because that description suits their ill-informed narrative, but that is far from the truth, far from the facts and far from reality. In fact I grieve for those people who seek to pass judgement on others because of their narrow-minded views and opinions. One only has to view objectively the testimonies to the royal commission into Crown Casino to know that everyday Victorians, good Victorian citizens, have become trapped in a vicious cycle of poor mental health and addictive behaviours—nothing more, nothing less.
I do wish to raise and reinforce just a few points in the time I have left available to me and to say that people who have been harmed by drugs, alcohol and gambling are not necessarily bad people. They may well have displayed poor behaviours and bad judgement, but that does not make them bad and nor does it define them. I firmly believe that if you can fix a person’s mental health, you can fix the addictive behaviours.
We need to take decisive action with respect to the breadth of sports betting advertising in this country and in this state. There are limitations on advertising for alcohol and cigarettes. We recognise the harm that is caused by these lawful activities, but not gambling. Why, I ask rhetorically. As we have heard from those giving evidence to the Crown royal commission, many people are seduced by the benefits that Crown provides—from parking to free drinks and loyalty cards. I rhetorically ask: what is being done about the sports betting advertising that is seducing people with free bets, money back and juicy odds? In my view this needs to also be curtailed.
There has to be regulation of all sports betting companies operating in Australia. We need a regulator that can catch people who are falling down and slipping through the cracks. We cannot allow vulnerable and at-risk people to bunny hop from one sports betting account to another without interventions and support being offered. The companies themselves should have obligations, and so should government. There should be a cooling-off period for people who have closed or excluded themselves from an online account and are trying to activate another account.
We have to stop treating those impacted by gambling harm differently from people who have drug and alcohol addictions, whether that be in getting well or when they interact with the judicial system. There needs to be a strong mental health response put in place to help people get better, just like we offer those harmed by alcohol and drugs. As I said, Victoria needs to adopt South Australia’s gambling intervention program. Surely a person damaged by gambling has just as many rights as somebody damaged by drugs and alcohol. They too can benefit from a treatment order.
I spoke to a wonderful lady today who did end up in jail for offences relating to a gambling addiction. She indicated that the majority of inmates at the prison she was at were incarcerated due to gambling-related offences. The majority had no criminal background, but trauma-related events left them vulnerable and unwell, and that culminated in gambling harm. This is not right. Is this where we are as a society: incarcerating people who are not evil but simply unwell?
The most significant trait we have as humans, in my opinion, is forgiveness. Forgiveness and understanding are things that can be hard to offer. Even for those who love you the most—they have seen the best version of you and they have seen the worst version of you when you have been unwell—the hardest part to accept is that addiction is often littered with lies, deceit and isolating behaviours, with the ill person living in a fantasy world. It is hard to believe that family members and close friends are not even aware of these behaviours at times, but the reality is that people in this state are often good manipulators, secretive and masters of wearing a mask that hides their addiction and their pain.
I close with a quote from the Lord’s Prayer, which says, and which we state at the start of each Parliament sitting:
… forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
… lead us not into temptation …
… deliver us from evil …
And let us treat everybody fairly and kindly, no matter the situation.