For 25 years Baptist Minister Tim Costello has been fighting for gambling reforms in Australia.
He’s presided over six funerals of people who took their lives because of the suffering and shame caused by their addiction.
Christianity Today reports Reverend Costello has lobbied hundreds of politicians, helped organise the Alliance for Gambling Reform (AGR), and sought help from dozens of other Christian leaders, but only recently has there been a significant response.
Stu Cameron who leads the Wesley Mission and Anglican Dean of Sydney Sandy Grant have united to campaign for pokies reform, having played an active role in the New South Wales election campaign.
They called for one dollar bet limits on all poker machines, cashless gaming cards, longer compulsory shutdown periods for all poker machine venues, a limit to the number of gaming machines in clubs, and the ability for local leaders to limit the number of games in their areas.
That’s because Australians lose more than A$25 billion a year to gambling according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies. That’s the largest per capita loss in the world.
“Whenever I tell people that New South Wales has 40% of the world’s pokies, people are shocked. More so when I tell them over 70% of the world’s pokies are in Australia’s pubs and clubs. I’ve said for years that gambling is to Australia as guns are to America,” Tim Costello told Christianity Today.
Reverend Cameron’s Wesley Mission established the first gambling counseling service in the country three decades ago.
“Since poker machines were introduced into NSW in 1956, the local industry has had the field to itself and there has been very little debate about it, until now. That means the gambling industry dominated in pubs and clubs and, in many respects, bullied out of existence any meaningful opposition,” he observed.
“Pokies are created to addict. My heart as a pastor is both sorrowful and angry at the practices that enable this ongoing harm. I know it touches every corner of society. There’s not a demographic, ethnicity, or a postcode who have not been impacted by gambling harm,” he told Christianity Today.
His public advocacy has mobilised other Christians to get involved.
Social justice ministry Common Grace has become a key partner in Tim Costello’s AGR group. The Victorian InterChurch Gambling Taskforce works with congregations across the state to address the harms of gambling in their communities.
Reverends Cameron and Grant are urging Australian Christians to keep challenging governments on the “gambling crisis” noting that 40% of all pokies’ losses come from chronic gamblers who are usually low income.
Sandy Grant told Christianity Today: “The anger at the chaos and the carnage done to people through this parasitic misery-making entertainment makes us want to act righteously for justice.”
A recent survey of 1,000 NSW residents found 70% of respondents didn’t believe the government was doing enough about poker machines and gambling reform.
The newly elected Labor government has acted to remove all gambling signage outside NSW pubs, club and other pokies venues.
It has also introduced a bill that would ban venues with poker machines from making political donations.
The NSW Crime Commission report’s primary recommendation was to introduce a cashless gaming card, but the new government has opted for a trial of the measure on 500 machines to ensure no hospitality jobs are sacrificed.
The government has also pledged a statewide exclusion register and third-party exclusion options to allow loved ones of problem gamblers to apply for them to be banned from venues. It has also vowed to reduce poker machine cash input limits from $5000 to $500 and invest $100 million in harm minimisation programs.
Tim Costello points to other encouraging signs such as cashless cards being used for pokies in Tasmania and more local councils and church leaders mobilising against gambling.
“I do have hope things will change. We don’t have to get rid of all gambling, but we can make this much safer for everyone,” he proclaimed.