Wednesday, 22 June 2022

Matters of public importance

Gambling harm


Matters of public importance

Gambling harm

The SPEAKER (16:01): I have accepted a statement from the member for Morwell proposing the following matter of public importance for discussion:

That this house notes the linkages between gambling harm and poor mental health and the subsequent devastating impacts upon many Victorian individuals and families, and calls upon the state government to consider the following initiatives to help prevent and better support those experiencing gambling harm:

(1) appropriate data collection by the Coroners Court of Victoria to understand the number of suicides occurring as a result of gambling-related issues;

(2) advocacy to the federal government to provide for better regulation and oversight of online gambling companies, given there are few checks and balances with respect to a person having experienced gambling harm being able to open new online betting accounts;

(3) encouraging the federal government to abolish or at least reduce the high volume of betting and sports betting advertisements that saturate our televisions, media and social media outlets, noting there are limits and/or bans on the advertising of the selling of alcohol and cigarettes, yet despite the significant harm of excessive gambling, there are few constraints to gambling advertising; and

(4) introducing a Magistrates Court gambling intervention program, similar to that which operates in South Australia, where a therapeutic approach is applied for offenders who have committed low level criminal offences, and upholding the same application that occurs in Victoria’s Drug Courts for those with drug and/or alcohol dependencies.

Just before calling the member, the matter of public importance for discussion today countenances some serious issues that may affect people. I understand the parliamentary broadcast service will publish the number for Lifeline on the broadcast, and I also remind members and staff listening to this debate of the services of our employee assistance program, Converge, 1300 687 327.

Mr NORTHE (Morwell) (16:03): Thank you, Speaker, for the opportunity to participate in the matter of public importance (MPI) debate today and for allowing me to set the topic for debate. I apologise for the morbid topic that we are discussing today, but it is an important one. The facts are clear that people are losing their lives to gambling harm, and this is a blight we need to fix. In my contribution I want to explore what many of the pressing issues are whilst offering some initiatives that I believe can prevent or minimise gambling harm in this state. There are two documents I want to reference, and they are the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation (VRGF) submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, along with the recent report undertaken jointly by Financial Counselling Australia (FCA) and Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) titled Gambling and Suicide Prevention: A Roadmap for Change. I truly hope that members and those interested in these subjects will take the time to read and consider both of those compelling documents.

First I want to read some extracts from the opening remarks of the VRGF submission to the mental health royal commission, which outline the linkages between mental health and gambling harm. It says the following:

There are strong associations between problem gambling and mental health conditions:

39 per cent of Victorians with a gambling problem have a diagnosed mental illness

up to 30 per cent of people who both gamble and seek treatment for a mental illness are problem gamblers

problem gamblers are over-represented in primary care, alcohol and other drug (AOD) settings, and in mental health services

gambling is estimated to account for 22 per cent of the Victorian mental health sector’s total costs, half of which is attributable to problem gamblers …

Importantly, the VRGF then go on to say that despite this significant evidence, gambling harm is largely unrecognised as a public health issue and is under-recognised as a major challenge for the mental health service system. Gambling harm is not mentioned in the government’s public health, mental health or suicide prevention plans, nor is it included in the royal commission’s terms of reference. So I would say, when you assess those particular comments, we seem to talk the talk in saying that gambling harm, alcohol and drugs we treat as a health problem, but we are not walking the walk when it comes to actually taking action, and they are the points I want to raise today.

From my own perspective, I want to say that not all people who have an affliction with alcohol, drugs and gambling issues are bad, awful, terrible people. Do they display bad behaviours? Do they make poor choices and bad judgements? Do they hurt people? The answer is yes; that cannot be denied. The shame, guilt and humiliation from your actions live with you every day, and you cannot say sorry enough. However, there is a high incidence of mental health issues attached to one’s gambling addiction, as the VRGF and other experts note. I know some will say, ‘Oh, you’re just playing the mental health card or the victim card’, but my response to that is: well, if that is your view, that is fine, but I would also say it is obvious you have had no lived experience in this space, and you should be thankful for that. However, we are also very quick to judge people by saying that those with drug and alcohol and gambling dependencies do not care what they do, do not care who they hurt and have no self-control. And because of the person’s actions, that is a reasonable conclusion, but before judging someone, whether that be a family member or someone they do not know, I would like to think that people would ask of themselves what I believe to be a very, very important question, and that is: do you think the people with mental health issues and gambling, drug or alcohol dependencies actually want to deliberately and intentionally hurt themselves, deliberately and intentionally hurt their family, deliberately and intentionally hurt their loved ones, deliberately and intentionally hurt their colleagues or deliberately and intentionally hurt their friends? Do you really think that is what they want? Do you really think that is what I wanted to do? Think about it. Why would I deliberately and intentionally want to ruin my life, ruin my career, ruin my reputation, impose so much pain upon my family, cause grief to my friends, cause pain to my staff and cause grief to my colleagues? I ask you: for what purpose? There is no purpose for someone doing that. There are no winners. There is no positivity.

So you then have to ask, if you deem that this person does not want to do that, why would a seemingly good and intelligent person undertake such destructive behaviours and activities? There are only two answers that I can think of: (1) the person is just plain bad, evil, or (2) the person is unwell, and evidence says the vast majority of cases uphold the second answer as being correct. Again, read the VRGF and FCA-SPA reports that uphold that. My comments do not seek to make me the victim because that is not the case. It is family, friends, employers, colleagues and others who are the victims, and people do have to bear the consequences of their actions. But when it comes to government plans and objectives for health, mental health, suicide prevention and the judicial system, gambling harm and associated mental health issues do not seem to be the priority, as they should be. Read recommendation 1 of the VRGF submission as a case in point.

One of the awful outcomes of poor mental health and gambling harm is suicide, and whilst I know I should not reflect on persons in the gallery, it is coincidental that whilst making this speech today, Michelle Possingham, the CEO of Lifeline Gippsland, is here. Michelle is a superhero to me, personally. She and her organisation have assisted so many people in crisis. The terms of reference in my MPI today say that we should be doing more to understand the rate of suicide with respect to gambling-related issues, because, number one, you cannot necessarily fix a problem unless you understand the extent of the problem. In the FCA-SPA reports, they have made 10 recommendations. Their number one recommendation is that police and coroners consciously look for problematic gambling as a contributing factor in investigations of an unexplained death. They also say that all states and territories need to establish suicide death registers and report on gambling-related suicides. Recommendation 5 goes even further by talking about the fact that there should be a national gambling suicide prevention plan, which we do not have at the moment. From a Victorian perspective, there was a study done in around 2012–13, I understand, where the coroner was asked to do some work and found that there were 128 gambling-related deaths between 2000 and 2012, with men accounting for 84 per cent of that particular figure.

Whilst the FCA-SPA report talks about Judge John Cain talking about 20 gambling-related suicides a year in Victoria, I have not been able to ascertain the accuracy of that or a report that goes to the heart of that. Probably I am underestimating it, but we are talking about at least 20 deaths a year in Victoria alone from gambling-related suicide. I would take this further and say that I think we also need to gain an understanding of the number of self-harm incidents. I am sorry to say that once a suicide has happened it is too late. Let us understand why people are self-harming. If it is related to gambling, then at least we can intervene and do something about it, so I would take that a step further. We should not accept the rates of suicide. One is too many, but if we are talking about 20 suicides or more per year in Victoria, then it is way too many.

The second point I have mentioned there is about online gambling companies. I know that pokies get a lot of attention when it comes to problem gambling, but particularly with the COVID situation there has been an exponential growth in online gaming. I ask: who is overseeing these online companies? Whilst people will say there is an opportunity to self-exclude, yes, that is one option and there is a national register so you can do that. But a lot of gamblers do not do that. Sometimes they are so unwell that they cannot even see they have got a problem, and they can bunny hop from one account to another. Big Brother, I believe, should be oversighting this somewhere along the line and saying that if I close an account, then I cannot open up another account. There should be a warning; red flags should come up. Maybe people should have a cooling-off period of perhaps 14 days before they can open another online account. It is just too easy for people to lose money, and there is no oversight or scrutiny of people in those situations. The VRGF report, again in recommendation 5, goes further and talks about how third-party-initiated exclusions might happen when somebody is very unwell.

The third point I have raised is something that I am sure all members have probably received complaints about, and that is the saturation of gambling advertising, particularly on our television screens. I understand that it is a federal government issue, and I have spoken to the minister here a few times. But hopefully we can make some inroads with the federal government at the moment to do something about it. I will raise two points: the first is we accept that there is harm with the excessive consumption of alcohol and smoking cigarettes, yet there are bans and limitations on advertising for those. We say that we accept that gambling is harmful to some people, yet basically in advertising you can pretty much do what you like. We either say we are going to get serious about this or not, because people are dying. That is the reality of the situation. The other thing I would say is one has to assume that the only reason betting companies are advertising to the extent that they are is the fact that punters are losing money. They are profitable and punters are losing money, so curtail it. Hopefully the federal government will look at that, with some advocacy from the state government.

The fourth measure or initiative that I have put on there is something a bit unique, but I had an intern, Georgina Stephens, do a report for me on gambling programs that might exist in the courts. Victoria has a very good Drug Courts system, where we recognise the fact that people who have committed low-level offences and have been impacted by drugs and alcohol can go to a Drug Court and be assessed in a therapeutic way rather than a punitive way. Why doesn’t it happen for gambling? I know people will probably say that there is the assessment and referral court system and there is the court integrated services program system—and some members of the government might even talk about that—but I do not believe they go far enough.

I was talking to some poor lady recently who was incarcerated. Yes, she did the wrong thing, but you compare her situation, where she committed a non-violent crime and was sentenced to a significant sentence, with one on the other hand—she was telling me about it, and I read about it in an article—where somebody had killed two people and permanently maimed a child in a car accident and did not go to jail. I mean, where are the consistencies? I just do not understand. There has got to be a fairer and more just system that gives regard to people who have mental health/gambling problems. That was upheld by a local Gambler’s Help counsellor who wrote to me a little while ago when I was talking about the concept of a gambling intervention program in our courts system. I will quote what she said. She said:

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 gamblers help program … I wish to thank you for your highlighting of 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 7 to 10 people affect. I agree that there needs to be done more 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 judgmental and do not understand the addiction of gambling. Clients often do not have a chance and end up with hefty penalties.

That says it all from somebody who has worked in the field for a long time. I thank the house for their indulgence, and obviously it is an issue I am very passionate about. I thank all of you who will contribute to this debate, and hopefully collectively we can make a positive difference to Victorians suffering from these heinous issues.

Mr DIMOPOULOS (Oakleigh) (16:18): I just want to start by acknowledging the contribution by the member for Morwell—difficult to hear, extraordinarily courageous, just incredible. Public debate is moved forward by being vulnerable and sharing personal experiences, as difficult as they are and despite the kind of anchored view that the public may have. The fact that you owned it, member for Morwell, was just extraordinarily powerful. I also wanted to commend the member for the matter of public importance (MPI) in the first place, but that contribution was extraordinary. It gives an absolute insight into—not that I ever thought this—the fact that gambling addiction is an addiction, is an illness. It is not an evil inherent in the person. You can see that very clearly from the member for Morwell. To claim that perhaps, as people have in the past, it is a problem with the person really is an abrogation of any responsibility for society, the government or people to fix the problems that bring about gaming addiction. It is easy to personalise, and we abrogate any responsibility.

Last year during the debate on the Casino and Gambling Legislation Amendment Bill 2021, the member for Morwell noted there is an undeniable link between poor mental health and addiction. He further said that one thing that all people who are impacted by gambling have in common is the crippling impact of shame, humiliation and regret. Due to the shame, gamblers become increasingly isolated and vulnerable. There are similar comments that the member made today. I have got to say it was very, very powerful and very much speaks to—and this is not political—our government’s commitment to mental health, and in large part the opposition’s support of it.

In the isolation, addiction entrenches itself because of the shame, because of the stigma, because you cannot share it, and not sharing it means you cannot get the help. And there is help. From what we know, gambling itself can often be a behavioural manifestation of underlying anxiety disorders and a range of other disorders. I cannot speak from personal experience, but a lot of the references from the member for Morwell were when he was recounting conversations, saying to someone, ‘Have you had lived experience? Have you?’. If you have not had lived experience, really, there is an invitation just to perhaps shut up and listen to those who have. We need to break the link where people seek relief from what compounds their suffering. It is a vicious circle. We need to break the link where people seek relief from what compounds their behaviour. We began part of that journey through, as I said, the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, which might just be the most extensive one in Victoria’s history.

I just wanted to recount some of that to the chamber. I could not possibly speak for the member for Morwell, but when you create a public licence for a conversation—whether it be about mental health or about coming out of the closet as a gay man or woman or trans, whether it be about equality or whether it be about family violence where you empower women and some men, but predominantly women, to come out and seek help—the very conversation is so impactful. We saw that today with the First Nations people here. The very conversation emboldens us and creates permission and a licence. I often say that one of the few benefits of the awful two-year pandemic was we would start business meetings—not just me, but colleagues in this chamber and our partners—with ‘How are you going? How are you feeling?’. There was permission to ask people how they were because it was a tough time for all of us. I could never remember meetings starting like that, ever. Meetings would start with, on Monday, ‘How was your weekend?’, and it was all like, ‘Yeah, we’re all fantastic. We’re all great’. There was never room for vulnerability, never room for people to share a very deeply personal experience of how they faced unprecedented anxiety and stress, as in the pandemic.

Similarly, when we talk about mental health, whether it comes from the factors that the member for Morwell shared with us today or from other factors—from trauma, from a whole range of other factors—we have the permission and we need to keep creating the permission and licence because that is not symbolic, it actually is practical. That is when people seek the help and have a chance of getting it—we have talked about waiting lists and a whole range of those things that we are investing in, but getting the help and actually then getting on with their lives, and the people that love them getting on with their lives. It is extraordinary bravery, and I am just going to say it: coming from regional Victoria, being a male, I think it is amazing that you have the strength and the courage to share what thousands of people are experiencing, thousands of people who do not have the same voice as you do. I am sorry—through the Chair—as the member for Morwell does in this chamber.

Back to the royal commission into mental health, which is a really important part of the ecosystem of recovery and help that the member for Morwell and the MPI speak to in terms of gaming—and the Premier has often said this—the biggest focus of the royal commission as a theme is early intervention and prevention. Again, as he said and as others have said—the Minister for Mental Health—mental illness does not begin in the acute setting at the Alfred or the Thomas Embling or the Monash hospital. It does not begin in a hospital. Mental illness begins in the community, whether it be in regional Victoria, whether it be in a gaming venue—that is an expression of it, sorry, the gaming venue—whether it be in the family or whether it be in a sports club. That is where it begins, so we need to get in early and treat it at that point. We could never build enough hospital beds, we could never build enough acute beds, nor could we have enough staff at the more expensive end, let us call it that, of the service system—psychiatrists and doctors and allied health professionals and psychiatric nurses and a bunch of other people who do an amazing job. We could never have enough of them.

But the more important point to prevention and early detection is even if we had enough beds, even if we had enough professionals, you will have effectively waited through years of suffering and pain to respond and help someone to fix their life. That is a waste of human talent. I have talked about my cousin. It is devastating for the person who is going through the system, and everybody who loves that person is going through it to some extent with them. Why wait until that point? Why not intervene earlier? That is one of the biggest ambitions of the royal commission, and where that lands in a sense—a policy sense, a legislative sense but also an investment sense—is in multiple ways, but I will just mention a couple.

One is the 60 adult centres we are going to build around Victoria. They are not 60 psych wards; they are 60 community centres which are at the lower end of acuity, the lower to moderate acuity end, which speaks exactly to the early intervention and prevention space. That aspiration for early detection and prevention lands in what we call the social prescribing model. The royal commission talked about, and this is just an example of it, how someone might present at one of these settings and the non-clinical setting will diagnose—sorry to use clinical language—that that person may benefit from being part of a men’s shed, being part of a cricket club or being part of some other community organisation. It does not all have to end up with white coats and psychiatrists and acute settings. That is the entire premise of this.

The other part of where it lands is literally the royal commission recommended that, like we have had for decades an office funded by the tobacco levy, the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, we need a similar model for the mental health public policy space. We need a champion for mental health promotion in the public service, in the administration of government. That again speaks to early detection and prevention, as do a bunch of other things, including the collaborative centre, where we are partnering with a research agency and a clinical service. We passed the legislation in this Parliament for the collaborative centre. It is effectively the future success of the mental health system, because it is the organisation that will make future discoveries of what works, not just literally in medicine but also in methodologies of how you treat someone, methodologies of how you get in at the prevention end and at the early detection end.

There are many, many aspects to the work of the royal commission and the work of our government in implementing the recommendations that speak to a system which prevents people getting ill in the first place—and I do not mean to use that language in any way other than factually—for people to be helped early, whether they present in terms of problem gamblers or whether they present in terms of any other kind of setting where we know there is an underlying issue with which we could assist that person, that Victorian.

Then you move on to the system that treats perhaps the most unwell. The royal commission talked about significant investment in beds and significant investment in alcohol and drug supports and services, including establishing a centre of excellence. We have chosen that centre of excellence, and it is run by Dan Lubman. He is a professor and he is incredible in this space, in alcohol and other drugs, and he is based at Eastern Health. There is an entire range of commitments we have made and are investing in in relation to that aspect of the mental health system. There has been close to $4.5 billion in terms of investment, about $840 million made at the point of the interim recommendations of the royal commission and then an additional $3.6 billion made when the full report landed on the minister’s and the government’s desk.

We know why we are doing this. The very powerful contribution by the member for Morwell was one of thousands of stories, but we heard many, many stories through the royal commission’s submission process. When I say this it sounds perfunctory, but think about, frankly, how disengaged traditionally the Victorian public generally have been from engaging in public policy conversations which require them to write submissions and do those things. We have got 6.5 million Victorians; we might get 100 submissions on some policy paper, whether it be something on wild brumbies or whether it be something about social policy. This inquiry received 15 000 or more submissions verbally or in writing—more submissions than any public inquiry in Victoria’s 160-year history. That is how much pain and suffering—and decades of pain and suffering—people in this state have endured from all governments effectively, maybe not by words but by actions, saying, ‘If you’re unwell, that’s your problem—there’s something about you’. No, it is not. No-one is born unwell. No-one is born addicted to gambling.

This is an acceptance that we have a responsibility and we have the power to make reform and change the life experience of thousands and thousands of Victorians both now and into the future—in fact statistically it is actually millions, not just thousands, in terms of how many people will suffer an episode of mental illness in their lifetime. That is a commitment. That is a promise, and it is an incredible promise when you think about the pain and suffering and the avoidance of that pain and suffering and when you think about the economic costs. The previous federal government, to their credit, did commission the Productivity Commission’s report, which talks about the economic cost of mental ill health of $60 billion to $70 billion for Australia. I think it is about $12 billion for Victoria. So if we invest $1 billion a year, which is about where we might end up—$900 million a year—we would still be about $11 billion ahead just on financial and economic terms, let alone what cannot be quantified: the pain and suffering we will have helped avoid for those people who are directly impacted by mental illness but also those who love them.

That is why this is such an important area for our government. That is why I am extraordinarily proud to work with the Deputy Premier as his Parliamentary Secretary for Mental Health. That is why this MPI is important, from our perspective, in a mental health frame. I applaud the member for Morwell both for putting it up and also for his honest and powerful contribution.

Ms KEALY (Lowan) (16:33): I would like to just open by supporting your comments, Speaker, around promoting the Lifeline hotline, but I think given the topic and relationship to gambling it would also be prudent to mention the national gambling helpline, which is 1800 858 858.

Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the member for Morwell, who has very openly shared his experiences and some of the personal challenges that he has faced through gambling and mental health issues. I think that it is very courageous to do that in any role, but particularly to have the courage to raise it in this place, with the scrutiny that we all get, is something that he should be very proud of, and I trust that that will assist him in his process in dealing with those issues going forward. Thank you very, very much, and thank you for raising the matter of public importance (MPI), because it does bring to Victorian debate one of the key issues that seems to be overlooked time and time again, and that is that relationship between problem gambling and mental health issues and the further harms that can take place in the wider community when those issues are not dealt with in an appropriate way.

I go back to the submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, which was referenced by the member for Morwell, that:

Problem gambling is not mentioned in the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Plan 2015–2019, the government’s mental health plan or its suicide prevention plan, or the Royal Commission’s terms of reference.

I note further that it was not mentioned in the interim or the final report of the royal commission into mental health. I know that people who work within the mental health sector certainly understand this relationship. I do hope that this government does. And if the Liberals and Nationals are fortunate to be elected to form government in November, I know I certainly will be promoting and making sure—front and centre—that this is no longer overlooked and that we address this intrinsic relationship between gambling and mental health problems and try and provide the supports and other mechanisms we can to minimise the risk of harm to individuals, their friends and family, and their colleagues in the workplace.

Unfortunately over the COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions we saw an enormous escalation of use of gambling as an outlet for individuals to regain some of their control. I note a report which was released early in the COVID-19 pandemic which was undertaken by the Australian Gambling Research Centre. It is entitled Gambling in Australia during COVID-19, and it was released back in October of 2020—as I said, very early in the rollout of lockdowns and restrictions. They found at that time:

Almost 1 in 3 survey participants signed up for a new online betting account during COVID-19, and 1 in 20 started gambling online.

Even with limited access to venues, overall, participants gambled more often during COVID-19. The proportion who gambled 4 or more times a week increased from 23% to 32%.

Horse racing, sports betting, greyhound racing and lotto were the main products that participants gambled on before and during COVID-19.

Of concern, 79% of participants were classified as being at risk of, or already experiencing, gambling-related harm.

This mostly impacted young men, from 18 to 34 years. They were:

… the sub-population most likely to sign up for new online accounts, to increase their frequency and monthly spending on gambling (from $687 to $1,075), and to be at risk of gambling-related harm.

We also know that over the pandemic we had a spike of suicides, and this is something that was hidden for some period of time before the coroner was able to finalise all cases. But now we look at the suicide rate in Victoria and it is absolutely horrific to see that in 2020, during the peak of the lockdowns and restrictions in Victoria, Victoria had its highest ever rate of suicide, with 712 Victorians taking their own lives. We have seen similar trends unfortunately through 2021. That year still has not been finalised for those investigations as yet. As has been pointed out by the member for Morwell, we do not know how many of those suicides were related to gambling-related harms and the desperation of not being able to find the support people needed when they needed it.

We do know, however, that the coroner has identified that 10 per cent of all suicides over the pandemic period of lockdowns and restrictions could be directly related and linked to what he calls COVID-related stressors, whether that was isolation from friends and family, an inability to go to work and then those linked pressures around not having an income, the overall fear of getting COVID or those other pressures that people may have had in their lives that were delivered through not just COVID but also particularly the lockdowns and restrictions. These have had a massive impact on the lives of Victorians in a very literal way, and nothing can be said to comfort the loved ones who have lost somebody that they love during those times—at any time, but particularly during the pandemic.

One of the biggest challenges that we have got in Victoria is that while we have a commitment to the royal commission—and the Liberal and Nationals have committed to all recommendations of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. I want to make that very, very clear, because I think that there are many who are making a point that we are not going to do that. This is simply not the case, and it is more reflective of the individuals who are saying that and trying to gain political points by trying to threaten something and scare a community who desperately want to see a reformed mental health system. I wish to speak to anybody who has heard that story and say that the Liberals and Nationals will not seek to undermine the royal commission’s recommendations. We will seek to implement every single recommendation, but more to the point, we want to achieve the overall outcome and strategy so that any Victorian when they need mental health support can access it and put in place mechanisms to make sure that we minimise the chance of people turning up to an emergency department in an ambulance or in a police car and then waiting for more than 24 hours before they can get help. To be in an emergency department for days when you are in a mental health crisis is completely unacceptable, and it is something where the Liberals and The Nationals have an absolute commitment that if we are elected at the end of November, we will definitively make sure we fix Victoria’s mental health system, because it cannot continue any longer.

Unfortunately the workforce challenges have been overlooked for a very, very long time by the Andrews Labor government. I go back to 2015 and Victoria’s 10-Year Mental Health Plan, where there is reference to a mental health workforce strategy. At that time there was a review of the mental health workforce and inquiry, and they actually quoted a result of those investigations that took place:

We heard that better outcomes will require ongoing development of an appropriately qualified and skilled workforce, including growing the peer workforce.

This was something in the government’s own report, in their own 10-year mental health plan that was established way back in 2015. Unfortunately they did not take action then, and even when the Victorian Auditor-General’s Office did an investigation into mental health access, again there were flags that they did not have any measures or targets around the workforce strategy. Still there are not enough workers today to be able to fill the thousands of roles that lie vacant in Victoria’s mental health system. Today there are over 6000 vacancies in the mental health sector in Victoria. If we go back to some of those earlier reports we can see that there were 5000 jobs in the mental health workforce. Earlier this week in his media release the Minister for Mental Health talked up the fact that there are an additional 2500 mental health jobs in Victoria. While it is great to have more jobs, it is great to see an investment in bricks and mortar and it is great to see an investment in governance, it simply will not deliver better mental health outcomes for Victorians if there is not the workforce to support that. You cannot get counselling support services from a brick. You get counselling support services from workforce, and those workers are absolutely fatigued.

In my closing remarks I would like to just make an acknowledgement of the thousands of mental health workers right across Victoria who have been working their tails off to keep up with demand. They are working additional shifts. They are tired. They have had so much demand and pressure put on them over the past two years over the lockdowns and restrictions. They just want to see a light at the end of the tunnel. I am hearing overwhelmingly from the sector they cannot see that light at the end of the tunnel. There are immediate reforms the government can put in place today that would unlock 2000 counsellors to work in Victorian schools under the mental health practitioners in schools program. We can fund provisional psychologists to be able to provide supervised support to individuals. It is another 2000 workers in the system. These are simple solutions the Liberal-Nationals support, but most of all we support implementing all recommendations of the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

Ms EDWARDS (Bendigo West) (16:43): I am very pleased to rise today to speak on the matter of public importance (MPI) that has been brought to the house by the member for Morwell. I thank him for very courageously bringing this important matter to the house. I think it is something that all of us as members of this place should endeavour to address and indeed improve, and of course that is mental health and gambling harm. I acknowledge how challenging it obviously was for the member for Morwell to talk about this, but it is really important that there is an opportunity for the Parliament of Victoria to talk about issues that are often not discussed openly or publicly and that those with lived experience should be acknowledged and their words taken into consideration. As the member for Morwell rightfully stated, the stigma that is attached to both gambling addiction and mental health is still very prevalent. It still exists, sadly even in this place. It is an issue that many people struggle with every single day, and it would be incumbent upon this house to occasionally have some bipartisan support around matters such as mental health outcomes, mental health support and gambling addiction.

It is of course no surprise to anyone in this house why I would be speaking on this MPI, as I have been a board member of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation for a number of years. Can I say that in my experience the VRGF is a leading agency. Not just in Victoria but across Australia and indeed across the world it is acknowledged that the VRGF is a leading agency, a leading foundation, a leading statutory body that does exceptional work and exceptional research, particularly in relation to gambling harm, which is the centrepiece of pretty much everything that the foundation does under its exceptional leadership. Can I acknowledge Shane Lucas as the CEO and also Tass Mousaferiadis, who is our chairman of the board, and my fellow board members, as well as the wonderful staff who do extraordinary work at the VRGF.

I noted that there was some discussion in the previous contributions from other members in relation to the focus of gambling as a public health issue. Indeed the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation has acknowledged this, and I think the state government has acknowledged this as well, particularly in relation to the legislation that we have seen before the house over the last few months that the public health framework is absolutely where the gambling harm needs to sit. The VRGF has refocused its gambling harm prevention strategy and its outcomes framework and has central, as I said, to its focus a public health framework and approach.

There have also been some comments from other members in relation to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, and yes, the VRGF did put in a submission, which obviously I have read, but we also had submissions particularly focused from people in relation to mental health and gambling. Can I acknowledge the member for Buninyong, who put in an exceptional submission to the mental health royal commission that focused on gambling and indeed mental health. The submission’s focus highlighted exactly that interaction between mental health and gambling, and I thank her for her contribution to that.

I think it is no surprise to anyone here that problem gambling has of course a very significant and deleterious effect on vulnerable individuals, particularly on families and communities who have family members who have a gambling addiction. But the basis for any response to problem gambling must be respect for the person, their behaviour disorder and of course its treatment. I wanted to quote today from the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) and a position statement that they put out back in 2017, which is still very relevant despite the intervening years and the mental health royal commission highlighting some of the areas of mental health that this government is investing in and addressing. Some of the key points that they raised, and these are still very relevant, were that:

The rise of interactive and online gambling is having devastating consequences; new gamblers are more easily recruited online and gambling sites are accessible 24 hours per day.

Approximately 90% of people diagnosed with problem gambling have at least one other mental health diagnosis.

The stigmatisation of problem gambling continues to act as a barrier to individuals accessing the support they need.

Electronic gaming machines …are associated with higher risks than other forms of gambling and the—

Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists—

supports changes that would restrict the number of EGMs, reduce the maximum bet and limit the jackpots on EGMs.

Increased investment in research into evidence-based screening, assessment, treatment and early intervention in the field of problem gambling is required and particularly, evidence-based models for regulation …

Increased funding of evidence-based services for the screening, assessment, treatment and early intervention of people experiencing problem gambling is also required.

I think these are all very relevant still. But one of the other things that came out of that position paper which I noted was quite relevant to the MPI today was in fact a recommendation that the RANZCP group put forward, and that is that:

Mental health and problem gambling should be aligned within state and territory government portfolios to enable an effective, evidence-based response to problem gambling and the associated mental health issues.

I think if you look at this government’s approach to mental health and the fact that we have had the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System and that all of the recommendations are being worked through and implemented, gambling harm as a consequence of or as a correlation with mental health is something that we can all focus on.

In relation to the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation and the position paper I just referred to, there is also significant intersection between the work that the VRGF is doing and those highlighted areas that I spoke about. The VRGF is very much evidence based in all of its work. The research that we are doing has been expanded, and it includes research from right across Australia and indeed across the world. On top of all of that work are the support services that are provided by the VRGF—and there are many. It is acknowledged by the VRGF that gambling problems and mental illness frequently occur together. Of course our services, such as Gambling Help Online, the support that we provide to family and friends affected by gambling harm and the work that we are doing with our multicultural communities, with our CALD communities and indeed with our First Nations peoples right across Victoria and some of our more vulnerable populations in rural and regional Victoria in particular are very much connected to issues like gambling harm. We know that there are many areas, for example, in rural and regional Victoria where gambling harm is not acknowledged as actual harm. The mental health services that are provided in rural and regional Victoria, the outreach services that we have and some of the investments that the member for Oakleigh referred to in relation to hubs are important networks that the VRGF works with to make sure that people who are at risk of gambling harm, people who we want to prevent from gambling harm and people we want to protect from gambling harm, particularly young people, have the supports that they need. I am very confident that the VRGF will continue to do that great work.

Can I again thank the member for Morwell for highlighting this really important issue and bringing it to the house so that we can have an open and honest conversation about it.

Mr ANGUS (Forest Hill) (16:53:383:): I am pleased to rise this evening to make a contribution on the matter of public importance as submitted by the member for Morwell, which states in part:

That this House notes the linkages between gambling harm and poor mental health and the subsequent devastating impacts upon many Victorian individuals and families, and calls upon the State Government to consider the following initiatives to help prevent and better support those experiencing gambling harm …

And then it goes on and lists four items which I will come to and deal with in the course of my contribution. Before I get into that, I really do want to place on record my appreciation of and commendation to the member for Morwell for his outstanding contribution here today. It was indeed very courageous of him to be so transparent with the house and with all Victorians in his contribution and to bring this matter of public importance into the public domain, and I strongly commend him for that and wish him well in that area.

In terms of some of the aspects of mental health linkage in problem gambling, I think one of the informative documents that I have looked at is the submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, dated July 2019, by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, and I want to read into my contribution some of the key points that that organisation, being an expert organisation, has found in relation to this very important matter. That is contained on page 2 of that particular report:

There are strong associations between problem gambling and mental health conditions:

39 per cent of Victorians with a gambling problem have a diagnosed mental illness

up to 30 per cent of people who both gamble and seek treatment for a mental illness are problem gamblers

problem gamblers are over-represented in primary care, alcohol and other drug (AOD) settings, and in mental health services

gambling is estimated to account for 22 per cent of the Victorian mental health sector’s total costs, half of which is attributable to problem gamblers

in 2014–15, the cost to Victorian gamblers of depression due to gambling problems has been estimated at $176 million, while the cost of emotional distress due to suicidal ideation was approximately $289 million, and emotional and psychological harms approximately $1,127 million.

It goes on to talk as well about the fact that there is evidence that gambling harm is largely unrecognised as a public health issue, and other members have made contributions in relation to that aspect of it. But it is quite sobering for us as members of this place to realise the impact that those figures have, not only on the community of course but on the lives of the people involved in that situation and their family and friends.

One of the frames of reference that I look through as I make a contribution on this is that in my previous occupation part of my role was as a certified fraud examiner, and we got involved in a number of so-called white-collar crimes. I lost track of the number of times when we would be involved or be aware of particular crimes where the offender was someone that was in the grips of a gambling addiction. As the member for Morwell quite rightly pointed out during the course of his contribution, no-one sets off in life to go down that path—to steal money or assets from someone else that are not theirs and then fritter them away and very often gamble them away on electronic gaming machines.

I clearly remember one offender that we caught. By the time we put the evidence together and were interviewing him, basically his response was that he was glad that we had caught him because having the evidence put in front of him and causing him to confess to the white-collar crime of fraudulently obtaining money broke the cycle of addiction for him. It gave him the opportunity to be snapped out of it, if you like. It was not an uncommon thing to see that the addiction either to electronic gaming machines or other gambling facilities and means was the motivation for someone wanting to gamble away their ill-gotten gains. As I thought about it at the time, it was really a compulsive behaviour that had led that person to being in that position. They did not ever start off wanting to wreck their life and to impact so negatively on their family and friends and of course on the victim in relation to their subsequent behaviour. It is quite sobering. There is no doubt that the matters that the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation have identified are evidenced out in the broader community.

In terms of one of the points that the member for Morwell has put up, point (1), ‘appropriate data collection by the Coroners Court of Victoria to understand the number of suicides occurring as a result of gambling-related issues’, I think that is a very valid point in that particular matter of public importance. It is an area that no-one ever wants to talk about or acknowledge, but there are linkages between problem gambling and suicidal ideation, as other experts have already identified in their published works, and certainly from a practical point of view they are there for all to see. I can remember talking to some police members after the opening of a large gambling establishment in Southbank. There was a spike in self-harm and suicides following that opening, where people had got addicted to the colour, movement and lights, to the tables and to the machines and as a result had gambled and realised in the cool light of day what they had done, sometimes gambling away their whole life savings. They ended up being in such a terrible mental and physical state that they felt there was no other option, no other way out, than to self-harm or indeed take their own life. So the incidence of those sorts of matters just skyrocketed, and that is evidenced by a number of sources, but certainly we can see some of the mitigation action that was taken by the government at the time. Installing suicide prevention fences on the West Gate Bridge and other intervention measures, which are so important for our community, were as a result of that and other motivating behaviours. I think it cannot be underestimated, the impact on people’s mental health and then the outworking of that in some dreadful situations and some very tragic situations.

The second point the member for Morwell noted was in relation to online gambling companies. I certainly concur with his thoughts on that—that this is an area which is effectively unregulated. We see very often particularly young people but also not so young people constantly on their mobile telephones. There is now the facility to so easily gamble and just to chew through money and savings on an unregulated basis, and I think that is an area of concern that should certainly be looked at.

The third point talks about the high volume of betting and sports betting advertisements that saturate our television media and social media outlets, and it equates that with the selling of alcohol and cigarettes and the restrictions around that sort of advertising. I certainly concur with that. I think the volume of gambling advertising that we are all seeing on TV but also, for example, at the football and in other public domains is completely out of control and needs to be dealt with in some manner or other by the government. I often speak to people, and particularly parents of adolescents, who are concerned that that behaviour is being reinforced, often in a very amusing way and a very catchy way, to the young people in their lives, and that has got all kinds of adverse consequences.

The final point the member for Morwell noted was some new initiatives similar to the Magistrates Court gambling intervention program in South Australia. Again, I would certainly encourage the government to look into these sorts of initiatives, to look in other jurisdictions to see what is working for them and to pick up some learnings from those other places with a view to bringing them back here to improve the outcomes for all Victorians.

This is a widespread problem, it is an under-reported problem and, as I said, it has got those clear linkages. We as legislators and also obviously the government itself need to be taking stronger action to deal with these matters. I certainly commend the matter of public importance as raised by the member for Morwell.

Ms SETTLE (Buninyong) (17:03): I rise to speak on this matter of public importance (MPI). Before I go any further I would very much like to acknowledge the member for Morwell. He and I have shared a particular bond since joining Parliament, as people that have been deeply, deeply affected by gambling, and I know that for him to share his experience in this public forum was very difficult and painful. It has been 10 years since I had to live through this trauma, and it still hurts like hell, and I am sure for him that it does too. Certainly when I first joined Parliament we sat down together and had a coffee, and it was one of those extraordinary moments—not from the other side; I mean, he obviously went through his gambling addiction and I went through it as the partner of a gambler. I think for both of us to acknowledge what the other had gone through was very healthy and positive for both of us. He is an extraordinarily brave man. It is one thing for me to stand here and talk about my experience, but as the gambler, if you like, it was extremely brave for him to stand here and talk about his experience. But it is not just brave, it is incredibly, incredibly important, because the one thing about gambling, the one thing that stops us saving people and stops us preventing the harm, is the stigma associated to it. I have said this before and I will say it again: people will more readily admit to being a heroin addict than they will to being a gambler, and it is because of the stigma, the awful stigma, that we place on gamblers.

I thank the member for Bendigo West for her contribution and her fantastic work at the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, but let us not forget that the VRGF refers to ‘responsible gambling’. In my opinion, that continues to victim blame. It suggests that some people are irresponsible and others responsible. It is an addiction like any other addiction. I have seen it face to face. I tell my story again and again here, and I will continue to because it is the only way to change that stigma. When my ex-husband revealed what was going on in his life and what he had done with our joint and family finances, at one point I said to him, ‘Weren’t you thinking about me and the boys when you were standing at that ATM?’, and he said, ‘No. No, I wasn’t’. He is not a bad man, like the member for Morwell is not a bad man. He was a man that was caught up in an addiction. What he found—I can only speak for my ex-husband, not for the member for Morwell—and what he explained to me was that it was getting out of it; it was a way not to think about the world around him. So when he was standing there at the ATM chasing his losses, he did not think of me or the children. I know that he is a very broken and sad man because he lost everything through that. We tried very hard to repair it, but we could not do it. I do not mean to share this story to elicit sympathy in any way. I have lived with it for 10 years and I will continue to live with it, but I share this story because we really do have to do more about this.

I want to thank our current Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation. She has been extraordinarily positive. When I speak to her, her door is always open. I want to see more happen—of course I want to see more happen—and her door has always been open to me. I know that she looks at every suggestion put before her, so I do genuinely and sincerely thank our current minister. I think that she wants to work towards dealing with this.

The member for Bendigo West commented on the fact that I put a submission in to the Royal Commission into the Casino Operator and Licence, and indeed I did. Along with the gambling foundation I would like to see gambling seen in the same frame as other addictions. I know that the royal commission has, for example, set up centres for addiction and gambling is not included in that. I will continue to push. I want to see gambling acknowledged as an addiction like any other. I know that I have spoken to people in the past who have suggested that substance addiction is very different. It is not. If you look at what happens in people’s brains when they are gambling, it is the same things that are being sparked off, it is the same addictions, and I would like to see gambling put in the same frame as alcohol and other drugs and for us to continue to deal with it in that frame.

I completely support the member for Morwell’s matter of public importance in terms of asking us to really deal with this as a mental health issue, and I also really, really support him in asking the federal government to do something more about sports betting. I know that the wonderful member for Eltham has worked very hard in this space, and we will talk about it, but for me, if someone is impacted—sorry; I will digress. Some people stand up and they say, ‘I’m not going to be that wowser. I still have a bet on the Melbourne Cup and stuff’. Well, I am that wowser. Australians lose more money than any other country in the world. Let that sink in. We have visions of other countries and their issues with gambling and betting. We lose more than anyone else in the world, and we have got to do something about that. People like to kind of imagine that it is part of our larrikin culture—you know, two-up in the trenches and so forth—but we need to address it.

I will not even put in a TattsLotto ticket, because it is triggering all of those things. It does not trigger me—I am too stingy, is the truth of it, to lose money. But I look at my sons and I know that they have got a genetic propensity for addiction, because it is an addiction and their father had it. I hate it when I see my boys gaming online and all of those bells and whistles that are meant to appeal to them. And the advertising industry—when I watch those ads, and I will name it, when I watch those sports ads, it makes my blood boil. They are chasing people in our community. They know that young men have a propensity to take risks, bless their little cotton socks. That is what they do when they grow up; they have to learn risk taking. And these people, these vampires, are out there after them. They are putting up ads which are all matey: ‘Come and be part of the gang and come and take this risk’. It is abhorrent. As the member for Morwell said, we do not allow cigarette advertising. Long gone is the Marlboro man, thank God, and long gone should be these Sportsbet ads.

What really, really set me off recently—only a couple of weeks ago—was my local newspaper, the Ballarat Courier, ran an advertorial. It was disguised as an article but it was co-funded by Neds, a betting company, and it was instructing people on how they could bet on the AFL. For God’s sake, why do we have to bet on the AFL? Can’t we enjoy the AFL for what it is? There is a corporate responsibility not to engage in that sort of advertising, but certainly I stand with the member for Morwell in asking the federal government to look at this.

I think that the member for Morwell has done some extraordinary work, and I was delighted to speak with him and the parliamentary intern that he asked to do a report around these diversionary courts in South Australia. I will say I have talked to many people with lived experience. You talk to 60-year-old women who were sent to jail. They are reeled in by the lights and the whistles because they have an addiction, and we send them off to jail. We do need to do more to acknowledge that these people are in the grip of an addiction. We have such wonderful drug and alcohol responses in the court environment, and I would like to see that happen too. I will continue to advocate for that.

This is an incredibly important MPI to me. We have to address this issue on so many different fronts, and again I have just got to say how much I appreciate the member for Morwell for standing up and opening this debate up again. I am glad to hear that both sides of the house see this as something to be addressed. I am sorry that the member for Lowan saw it as a possible opportunity to bag us on mental health when we are talking about people. We are talking about people who have suffered, and we should stand together as a unified house in trying to address this terrible, terrible issue.

I do thank those on the other side for supporting this MPI, but more than anything I have got to say how appreciative I am of the member for Morwell for sharing his experience. I know what pain he will go through for the rest of his life, as all of us do that have suffered at the hands of gambling. I think that we need to address this as the mental health issue that it is. We need to do more in the community, and I will continue to fight for that.

Mr McCURDY (Ovens Valley) (17:13): I rise to make a contribution on this matter of public importance (MPI). Before I do so I would also like to acknowledge the member for Morwell for his courage in raising this issue and speaking very frankly and honestly about his circumstances. I certainly commend him for that courage.

Like you, Deputy Speaker, I am a board member of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, and I am grateful to the member for Malvern, who appointed me there back in about 2012, I think it was, when we first set that up. Again it has been a significant step forward, the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. It brings together all sorts of models and education and has brought a whole raft of areas together that were very splintered prior to that. The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, which I will refer to as the VRGF from hereon in, certainly has brought together a lot of those tools, and it has done an exceptional job.

I know the member for Morwell has touched on a raw nerve for many in our communities with today’s topic. From the outset I say about the VRGF that they are not anti-gambling, nor am I anti-gambling, but we do believe in safety nets and programs and support education to try and assist those who cannot push themselves away from the TAB, the roulette wheel, the blackjack table, the pokies or any other form for that matter. There are people out there with gambling problems with TattsLotto and other gambling forms that people would not consider that you would have a gambling problem with. But we do know 39 per cent of Victorians with a gambling problem have a diagnosed mental illness, and gambling accounts for 22 per cent of Victoria’s mental health costs, half of which is attributed to problem gamblers. These are not my statistics; they are part of the submission by the VRGF to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, which others have spoken about in this place. We also know the presence of a comorbid mental health condition and gambling harm really makes for that perfect storm. Included in the recommendations in the VRGF’s submission to the mental health royal commission were certainly the first two recommendations:

That the Royal Commission recommend the Victorian Government include gambling harm prevention in future iterations of the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Plan, Victoria’s 10-Year Mental Health Plan and the Victorian Suicide Prevention Framework 2016–25 …

The second recommendation was:

That the Royal Commission recommend to the Victorian Government that public sector health promotion activities aimed at preventing mental illness acknowledge gambling harm as a mental health and public health issue and, where relevant, incorporate a response to problem gambling in program and service design.

Now, certainly these first two recommendations fit perfectly with this MPI today that we are discussing, and we know from figures back as far as 2014–15—and we know that those figures will have increased since then—the cost to Victorian gamblers in depression due to gamblers’ problems has been estimated at $176 million. The cost due to distress and suicidal thoughts is a further $290 million, and the cost associated with emotional and psychological harm is over $1 billion, so those numbers are quite significant in terms of the cost to Victorians.

But it is not the cost that we are concerned about, it is the effect it has on individuals. It is fair to say that the relationship or the linkages between gambling harm and poor mental health are statewide. Every suburb, every community, every small town in my electorate, your electorate and everybody’s electorate will have one, two or more people with gambling and mental health problems—and every regional centre. So it is not just one demographic, it is not just one area of the state; this is right across the board.

We know gambling has become so accessible, and others have spoken about this today. It is very accessible. Once upon a time you had to rock up to the TAB and fill out a ticket before you could put a bet on a horse. Nowadays, obviously, on your phone, on your iPad and everything else you can put a bet on the footy, on a horse or on the basketball, or somewhere in the USA you can be betting on basketball or anything that you like. It is very accessible, and we cannot blame that. We cannot blame the fact that it is accessible, but we need to acknowledge that that is part of the problem—and that is where the problems are stemming from, the accessibility. I am not sure that limiting that is going to help the problem.

The solution lies somewhere between education, support and better understanding. As I say, as a board member of the VRGF I take pride in the work that we do there, led by Shane Lucas, a tremendous CEO. We have got a wonderful team there that work very hard, and up against multinationals; we really are punching above our weight when we try to take on Neds, Ladbrokes, Sportsbet and all the others. I mean, TAB is only a small player in terms of international gambling. The ads that keep flying up on our TVs, on our iPads and everything else—you know, people say, ‘Why doesn’t the VRGF spend more money on these gambling harm ads and that?’. Well, we just cannot compete. We cannot compete with what is being spent by the multinationals. We know that is a federal area in terms of advertising—and we can cross that bridge in a moment—but certainly there is a lot of work to be done there and I think some limitations can be put there.

In terms of the MPI, around the first part around appropriate data collection, the better we know the circumstances, the better chance we have to assist. Number one talks about data collection by the Coroners Court of Victoria to understand the number of suicides relative to gambling-related issues. I suppose every sound strategy begins with reliable data. Whether it is the Coroners Court of Victoria or whoever is best to collect that data, I certainly support that. There is an opportunity there that we can get better data. As I say, I am not an expert per se as to where that data should be collected or who should collect it, but the data needs to be collected. That would give us a significant step forward in helping us to understand.

Part (2) talks about more regulation. I am not sold on more regulation. I am not just saying for gambling, but sometimes I think we are over-regulated in this state and over-regulated in this country. The big stick does not always work. It is about educating, it is about assistance—areas like that. I am not against more regulation, but I am just not sold that that is as good as some of the other options in this MPI to try and assist.

Number (3), for example, is:

encouraging the federal government to abolish or at least reduce the high volume of betting …

As I was talking about before, this is where we can make significant changes and have substantial input. Encouraging the federal government to do that will just help influence the marketing companies, the ads, the TV and the internet and play a massive role in what we do with our spare time. I do think that limiting the advertising would be a significant step forward, as mentioned by the member for Morwell. There are always ads about the level of alcohol that people consume or how fast you should or should not drive on the road and that you should not drink and drive and about smoking cigarettes and using drugs. Again, the more we hear about, ‘Here’s an opportunity to bet on Ladbrokes or Neds’ or whoever—‘Have a punt on the footy’ or something like that—it does hit a chord with some people. There are times when everybody goes through different circumstances in their life—highs and lows and everything between. Sometimes it is the highs and sometimes it is the lows when you find yourself reaching out for more alcohol, more betting, more something, more friendships—whatever it might be. Again, these excesses are where some of the concerns lie for me. There are definitely ways we can move forward, and maybe it is not just in Victoria, maybe it is federally, to try and help, first of all, with that level of advertising, because, as I say, it is in people’s spare time—you can finish doing the dishes and put the kids to bed and go and sit down and watch the TV for 10 minutes and there are ads on about gambling. You turn on your iPhone to see what is happening on Facebook and all of a sudden there are ads coming up there too. So it is in your face all the time, but as I say limiting that and I suppose educating people is far more important than some the other things that we can do.

I am running out of time. There is so much more we can talk about on this, but I do again want to commend the member for Morwell. It is a very courageous day for him in terms of raising this very important issue. As I say, having been on the board of the VRGF, like you, Deputy Speaker, we do hear and read and see probably more than the average Joe in terms of what is going on at the VRGF. The member for Morwell—I again commend his courage and I wish him well into the future, as I do all others who have gambling and mental health related issues.

Ms WARD (Eltham) (17:23): I am glad to have this opportunity to again talk on something that I am quite passionate about. It is very nice to follow on from the previous member and know that there are things that we can debate in this house where so many of us are on the same page and have the same view. I really want to thank the member for Morwell for putting forward this matter of public importance today and giving a number of us the opportunity to talk about a public health issue which is incredibly serious and is quite pervasive within our community. Gambling addiction is something that creates a huge number of challenges and absolutely creates mental health challenges. I thank the member for Buninyong for her contribution as well: for talking about her own personal experience and what that has meant for her and for her family but also for the courage with which she continues to pursue better outcomes for communities across the state. We are grateful to people who do step forward, who use their own lived experience to actually activate change and to activate better outcomes for people, and I thank her and the member for Morwell for sharing their stories today.

Because this is something that I care quite a lot about, I do read a fair bit of literature talking about gambling advertising and the effects of gambling advertising on people in our community, and I learned that in 2016 the enthusiasm that we had as a nation for gambling actually provoked international discussion. There was an article in the New York Times talking about the fact that this country has the most gamblers in the world. We are the biggest gamblers in the world in this country, and I cannot get my head around that. I cannot understand why, when we have got the weather we do, the beaches we do, the fantastic sport that we have got—and I will come back to sport, because that is clearly a trigger—and where we have got the interconnectedness, we have got fantastic restaurants and we have got so many wonderful things to do, we as a nation are the biggest gamblers in the world. How is it that we need that buzz? How is it that we need that colour and movement? How is it that we need that escapism? I do not understand it.

This is I think where part of that mental health connection comes into it, because clearly there are some challenges in your life if you are becoming addicted to gambling, and there are things that you will need to have addressed. It is a tragedy that gambling can become a crutch for you. For the New York Times to call gambling in Australia a serious gambling problem is pretty serious. It is very serious. For every Australian, we lose over $1000 a year in gambling. The hip pocket costs are expensive, but that mental health strain is the worst, and that is the biggest cost—whether it comes down to relationships, to productivity or to the amount of money that has to be spent to actually help repair somebody.

As we heard from the member for Buninyong, it is not just the gambler that faces these challenges and that has these mental health issues. It is also the people around the gambler. A good friend of mine’s marriage ended because of the gambling addiction of her husband. It was a pokies addiction that he had, and she got so tired of the lies, of turning up to a supermarket not having money in the bank and not having the security of knowing, despite the fact that they were both working, that their mortgage will be met. And that is not because inflation is up or because petrol is up or because there are other challenges, it is because that money has been thrown away. It is gone. It has evaporated. It has been wilfully lost. That is a really traumatic thing for the gambler once they realise what they have done, but for the people around them who are seeing this unfold it is horrific.

The mental health effects of gambling are so awful, they are so bad, and the industry has to step up and they have to do something about it. The biggest thing I would like them to do is to cut back on their gambling ads, because they are everywhere, they are pervasive and they are seeping into the consciousness of every Australian, especially children. That is disgraceful and that is disgusting, and it is outrageous that it is done so deliberately to target kids—to make gambling fun, to normalise it as a social activity. It is callous and it is cynical and it is disgraceful.

There was some Nielsen research done around the gambling industry and their advertising, and in Australia in 2021 they spent $287.2 million. That was up from $89.7 million in 2011. This excludes the ads that we see in stadiums or sponsorships. This is just what is flickered in front of us, whether it is on the TV or whether it is on our social media. It is everywhere we go, and because of these little computers that we carry around with us we can gamble no matter where we are. We could be in this place here and we could gamble. We could be on the loo and we could gamble. We could be on the tram and we could gamble. No matter where we go we can gamble, and these companies are making it as easy as possible because they are teaching us through their advertising how to do it, how to normalise it and how to socialise with people and gamble at the same time.

I thank this government for banning betting advertising on roads and public transport and within 150 metres of public schools, and I am grateful that the minister listens to me and is supportive of my petition, which I will speak about shortly. Nielsen research also found that nearly 1000 gambling ads were broadcast daily on free-to-air TV in Victoria last year. That is an increase from 374 ads a day in 2016. That is around about 148 gambling ads on free-to-air TV between 6.00 pm and 8.30 pm every weeknight during the prime-time family viewing slot.

In a study undertaken by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, lead researcher Samantha Thomas noted that an eight-year-old watching AFL footy today will have never seen a game without a gambling ad. The report found that the majority of children aged 8 to 16 years were able to recall the names of sports betting brands. Children aged 12 to 16 years, boys and children who play or attend AFL matches were more likely to recall brand names than younger children, girls and children who play other sports codes. Around 75 per cent of kids can name one betting agency, because most of us will have the footy on in some form in our households throughout the season. It is in the background, you are sitting and watching it or someone in your family is watching it or listening to it. The footy is around you, and these ads are on non-stop. It is absolute saturation. Thirty-one per cent of Victorian secondary students have gambled—nearly a third of secondary school students have gambled. These people cannot drink—they are not legally allowed to drink—yet they have been gambling.

One of Australia’s largest advertisers, along with Coles, Woolworths and the federal government, is Sportsbet. How is Sportsbet up there with Coles, Woolworths and the federal government? How are they able to afford such a huge advertising budget? Because it comes out of the pockets of the people in this community. It comes out of the people in our state. It comes out of the pockets of the people living in our country. What is most outrageous is that we have seen a 300 per cent increase in online gambling since the pandemic began. Since the pandemic began, advertising for gambling has gotten worse and people have been gambling more. With the mental health challenges that people are facing, to use this, to use gambling as a source, to target people and to take advantage of their vulnerabilities is absolutely disgraceful. It is absolutely disgraceful, and I know my community agrees with me. This is why I have got close to 500 signatures already on my petition to reduce gambling ads on our screens, because it needs to stop. The gambling industry needs to cut it out.

I agree with the previous member around doing some more work on how to educate people around the challenges and the negativities around gambling. The gambling industry need to put their hands in their pockets, and they need to actually reduce their advertising to get people gambling and do more to actually stop people from gambling, because clearly more than enough people are gambling. We need to cut it out because we are going to find that mental health challenges are going to grow as gambling grows. It is going to get worse for people, and it needs to stop. The time before last, when I spoke on my petition, I had a very friendly email from somebody in the gambling industry saying, ‘Come and meet with us and learn about what we are doing’. No—send me an email and tell me that you are going to cut this out and that you are going to cut back on gambling ads on TV and everywhere else because I am sick of it, and I know my community is too.

Mr BATTIN (Gembrook) (17:33): I rise on the matter of public importance put forward by the member for Morwell, and I join everyone in this house in saying to the member for Morwell that we do congratulate him for bringing forward a topic that does not always get spoken about in the community, a topic that can be sensitive and that is obviously going to have various views around it in the community.

We remember the grand prix in Melbourne when it was originally here. We can go back to the cricket, and we remember the Benson & Hedges World Cup. We remember Marlboro, and if I am correct, it was Marlboro that had the Ferrari sponsorship. We eventually went through a stage where smoking was advertised everywhere. It did not matter where you went—at the football, at the cricket, at the tennis—it was smoking. Over time we realised that was not the way forward, and that changed. We have seen a reduction, if not a full removal, of smoking advertising, so much so that tobacco companies cannot advertise on their own packets, which I think is a great positive going forward. We have seen some changes with the gambling sector; however, we are now seeing more and more advertising in places that is directly targeting those that are probably the most likely to have that uptake.

I am not all for banning industries—I am definitely not for banning industries—but I think we have to have some responsibility. This question is raised with me quite consistently, and my former principal, Ray Heathcote, mentions it quite often. We have had some arguments around the gambling industry, but he is very keen on how we should be talking about the sport and not the odds. That is an ad campaign that is coming out more and more. Sometimes we get a bit behind, but some of the leaders of the change now were also the leaders in increasing gambling in the past. I am going to say football clubs are in a prime position for that. Many AFL clubs have made their living—they have thrived—off gambling. They have had a lot of money put into them to afford the players, the sponsorship and the growth of the club, but at the same time clubs more and more now are also identifying that they must have a social conscience in what they do. I am not sure it is every club, but I know most clubs have walked away from pokies in clubs, and that is a great move in the right direction. I know Brian Cook was down at Geelong and was very proud to start that move down at Geelong Football Club. We could move away from that, and I think it is something that we should all endorse moving forward, because the impacts of gambling can be as bad, or worse, as the impacts of drugs or alcohol in our community. We see too many people who end up in our court system directly linked to gambling.

I note the member for Oakleigh’s contribution. I was listening, and I have been listening to this debate because I think it impacts every person in every community. I was listening to the member for Oakleigh, who said, ‘You’re not born a gambler’, and I do agree. It is obviously not the case that you are born and the next week you are betting on your football club. However, there is enough research—and it is all academically peer reviewed—talking about people who are born with an addictive personality. If you get a person who does have that addictive personality, then things like these ads can be the trigger point, and they will then go on and become gamblers. Now, it is not always gambling; that addictive personality can be seen in many traits. We can see it in people with alcoholism. We can see it with drugs. You actually can quite commonly see, if you go back and look at many people who have gone through treatment for an addiction, that if they go and get treatment for a drug addiction, later on, whilst they will not go back to drugs, they will end up gambling or they will end up drinking. That can happen more and more in our communities, and that is when have to start to be more responsible as a community in terms of what we are putting in front of these people that is going to trigger them to continue along a path that is effectively self-destructive.

We do not see advertised, obviously, drugs online or on TV et cetera, but we do see the continuous advertising of alcohol and we do see continuous advertising of gambling. For a person with an addiction, that can be the thing that just leads them down that path. Also with the traits of an addictive personality, when someone has increased stress and an addictive personality, that can lead to them finding an outlet that at first is equivalent to a drug—just that quick hit. If they take that quick hit and for 30 seconds they feel okay, that quick hit can turn into something that goes further and further. Taking gambling into that, they can go in for the quick hit in gambling. For those who have been into the pokies and put their money in the machine—I will say it is a coincidence; I am not going to say there is a conspiracy theory—it seems to be that every person who puts their first dollar in wins $100, and from then on they keep going back to try and find that next hit to get more. I do not know how it works with the gambling industry and why you always seem to win the first time, but obviously that is the part that can be the trigger to get you in.

The other part of that is that many of us in this room would have spoken to people in our communities, in our families and amongst our friends who will tell you about their wins, and they are not talking about the losses behind them. I have seen it directly in my family where I have spoken to someone who always speaks about the $100 or the $200. Or they say, ‘Remember that day we went down and I walked out with four grand from 10 bucks’, and you go, ‘Oh, yeah, that was awesome, wasn’t it?’. But they do not tell you about the $9000 they put in the week before, or they do not tell you some of the stories we have heard in here today from members where food was not on the table because they did not have the money for it. This is one that I think all sides of government have to take responsibility for: the pokies growth throughout our state has continued for decades. Again, I am not for banning, but the one thing that concerns me about them is they go into the lower socio-economic areas, and why? Because that is where they are going to get the greatest return, because the people in those areas who will either have an addictive personality or look at the opportunity to get rich quick—they may not have the education or may have struggled with employment and struggled with other things in life—may go, ‘Well, if I can go in there, the gold lights up when I walk through and it feels like I can walk out a millionaire, I’m going to give it a go’. And that is a targeted campaign from these companies. They make enough money to know where to invest, to spend and to put that money. They know the return they are going to get.

I know in our community in Officer there were many who fought against getting pokies in Officer. They proudly won that battle against having new licences allocated to an Officer pub; however, there is still a restriction on how many pokie machines are allowed within a council area. Each council area will have a number that is allocated of what they can have in their area. The problem with the allocation model at the moment is if you go into an area like Cardinia you can go into Beaconsfield, where you have probably got some areas that are a bit higher income, with more returns for the families there and less chance of the pokie machines. It is not divided up within the whole council area in terms of where those pokies can go. They have just got an absolute maximum amount they can put, so of course they target those to the areas they are going to get the greatest return from.

We heard about the 300 per cent increase in online gambling. We also understand there was a decrease in gambling, obviously because you could not go out to venues, so that would have been a translation across. However, we realise now that a lot of people who used to go to the pokies, go to the trots or go to the horses to put their bet on, which at least gave them some restriction on what they would spend, have lost that restriction. Why? Because it is now in your home. Meta–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok—it does not matter who you are, they have identified who gambled during those periods of time. I did. I am not a big gambler. We have a bit of a bet among mates, and we use Sportsbet. We do not use a lot. We put on $5 between the group of us and have a bit of a laugh with it. Now I get more ads from Sportsbet than I do anything else. Why? They have targeted that I am a person that is going to go on there and bet. Now, I am in a lucky position; I have not gone on to become an addicted gambler. However, if someone is an addicted gambler, that means now every day in their home they have to put up with another ad coming through another social media or media outlet, and that is simply not good enough.

I just want to finish off with some of the things that the member for Morwell has mentioned here around suicide, around mental health and around the connections to mental health. They are major issues in the community. Can I congratulate the member for Morwell, because to come out and put his story on the table would have been extremely difficult, and every person in this Parliament respects the fact that he has had a hell of a time over the last couple of years. I think everyone in this debate so far has put their views forward of what it should be, but we all do stand together and say there needs to be change in what we are going to do with gambling and mental health in the future.

Mr FREGON (Mount Waverley) (17:43): In the spirit of the bipartisan nature of this debate I will continue where the member for Gembrook left off, with acknowledging the very difficult nature of the debate that the member for Morwell has brought forward. It really is refreshing to talk about a matter of such importance and have that nature across all sides of the chamber. We all see—and everyone I have spoken to today sees—the issue that we have in front of us on a daily basis in all of our areas. I go to the matter that the member for Morwell has brought, where he is stating the link between poor mental health and the devastating impacts of gambling.

To follow on from what others have said and the member for Gembrook said, when you go into a pokies venue and you see the flashing lights and they are all enticing you in, that is a mental advertising strategy to get you interested. It makes sense that if the very nature of trying to get you involved in the process of gambling is based on your mental outlook on it, then the process of gambling itself is going to have an effect on those same mental processes.

As other members have also said, not everybody who gambles has a problem, just like not everyone who drinks has a problem and not everyone who has other risk-taking behaviour has a problem. However, I would say everyone who finds themselves problem gambling certainly has a problem. What do we do—and others have pointed to this as well—as a state to address the issue in that proportion of people that we know is there? We know that this legal activity—and alcohol is a similar type of problem—that we license and to some extent regulate, and I will get to some of those points that the member for Morwell has brought up as well, harms people. We know that right now there are people coming home from work who will go straight to the TAB or pokies or get home to get on their computer or their iPhone or whatever, and they will be losing money that they cannot afford to lose. Surely if we know this, we must seek to do more to educate, to assist, to prevent harm. That is not to say we are not doing things in that area. Of course we are doing things, and I thank the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Gaming and Liquor Regulation for the many conversations on this topic that I have had with her and her office, especially in regard to some of the what I would call pre-emptive gambling education that some gaming companies work in. We need to continue to be active in this space. I think the member for Ovens Valley talked about education, and that is very important.

I am not suggesting that we ban gambling; I do not think this country could necessarily survive that. I do remember a time when there were not pokies in pubs, though, and the music industry was a lot healthier. You could go back to that and I would not lose any sleep. Realistically there is no real prospect of shutting down the industry—nobody wants to do that. But we do need to consider the harm, and we need to look at what else we can do to minimise it.

It is encouraging to know that the density of Victorian gaming machines has reduced and is reducing. It is encouraging to know that even the gaming companies themselves are identifying the problem in their advertising, but that is a bit of a double-edged sword, because we see ads for some of the companies where they talk about ‘If it’s no fun, walk away’ or whatever the slogan is. I think there is one ad where all the mates are talking about their wins and it is focusing on one guy who did not have a win. I mean, that is good, but similar to the way that some computer game companies are now putting mechanisms in to limit loot-box spending, which I have talked about a number of times: yes, it is good to try and educate, to try and assist people to get out of habits that are unhealthy and in some cases financially devastating, but the very fact that you are acknowledging it as well means that we are not really getting there. I would imagine in the case of gaming companies that have put limits on things like loot boxes or allow you to set their own limits, they are doing that because they realise there is an issue and they realise that governments are looking at the issue—and you can see from just today’s debate that all sides of this chamber realise this issue is important. We have bodies like the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, and I acknowledge we have had two members of its board speak today. Deputy Speaker, I appreciate your work in that area. There is more that is needed to be done.

Now, I just want to go back to the member for Morwell again because we have all, I think, suitably acknowledged the courage that it takes to stand here in this house and talk about an experience which I cannot imagine and I could not talk to. But I do know that from my own personal experience with mental health issues way back when, the first step to working on the problem, from my own experience, is to accept that there is a problem at the start and that—in my case, for me—you need to change for your health and for the welfare of your friends and family. And that goes to what the member for Morwell was saying. By bringing this matter of public importance up today and from the tenor of the debate we have had, I hope that gives him comfort that his thoughts and his wishes for more work in this area will not fall on deaf ears.

In the small time I have got left I will go to the second point, and other members have raised the issue of the federal government’s requirement to act in this space. We are limited as a state body when it comes to online communications and online gambling. Minister Rowland has had a couple of weeks in the job, so I cannot imagine we have seen monumental change in a few weeks. But I will be writing to the minister, and I hope that we can raise these issues and see more work in this space, because there is a lot to do.

I saw a young kid in Coles just last week, about the age of 10—it was at school drop-off—with a $50 note buying a Roblox card for in-game money. It is not gambling, and there might be nothing wrong with it—it might have been birthday money, the parents might have been happy with it; it might have been completely fine. But it might not have been. We have to catch up regulations in this country in regard to online activity, and that includes gambling. We know it leads to mental health problems. We need to do more, and I think anything, from the sound of it, that this house can do to get there we will do. I commend the motion.

Mr ROWSWELL (Sandringham) (17:53): Deputy Speaker, I think I picked up in the last speaker’s contribution your work on the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. I acknowledge that. Thank you for doing that on behalf of the Parliament. I also acknowledge that in 2011 it was the former coalition government that established that foundation, which we are certainly proud of on this side of the house but I think every member can be proud of. I think it was a good thing to do.

I also acknowledge, in addressing this matter of public importance (MPI), the contribution of the member for Morwell. I think that the member for Morwell’s contribution today came from a deep personal place, and that was quite obvious in his contribution. I acknowledge him, and I acknowledge the courage that he had when allocated this matter of public importance time—an important time within the sitting week of the Parliament—to bring these matters of the linkages between gambling harm and poor mental health to the attention of this house for the consideration of its members.

I want to address this matter of public importance in a couple of ways—firstly, by saying that I took some time to review the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation’s submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System, which was submitted in July 2019. My colleague the member for Ovens Valley did the same. I thought it was interesting that in the royal commission’s final report into Victoria’s mental health system there are zero recommendations and no mentions about mental health being linked with gambling. I am surprised by that. I think that is interesting; I think that is noteworthy. And there are in fact only seven mentions of gambling in the five volumes of the report. Perhaps that was a missed opportunity, because it is clear to me that there is a linkage between gambling harm and poor mental health and that was an opportunity to try and highlight that in a formal way.

Last week was Men’s Health Week, and the focus this year was building healthy environments for men and boys. The aim of that campaign was to increase awareness of preventable physical and mental health problems in men of all ages and to encourage them to be proactive with their own health and wellbeing and to engage in healthier lifestyle choices. Men of course are more likely than women to be impacted by the linkages between gambling harm and poor mental health, and this is an issue that has not been acknowledged, in my view, in an appropriate way.

If we all agree—and I think we do—that there are linkages between gambling harm and poor mental health, the question then is: how do we fix it? How do we go about doing something about it? If the response to that is, ‘Well, we need more money to do it’, then there are some very obvious ways that that money can be raised to ensure that responsible gambling programs are better funded. Serious consideration should be given to taxing foreign-owned online-only bookmakers properly, and I will go into that in some detail too.

Just as an example, in my research in preparing for this MPI I came across an article published in the Guardian a year ago in relation to Bet365. Their CEO, Denise Coates, if you include an additional payment, received £469 million as part of her annual wage. That is some A$850 million for her annual wage. Of course the parent company for Bet365 is based in Stoke-on-Trent in the United Kingdom and therefore is not subjected to Victorian legislation but is under a different international regime. Similar online-only bookmakers now represent some 60 per cent of total market share in Australia and more than 70 per cent of the online market share. However, foreign-owned online-only bookmakers are currently taxed less than the local TAB, with a point-of-consumption tax of only 10 per cent. It is interesting to note that the Queensland and New South Wales governments just in the past fortnight announced increases to the point-of-consumption tax rate from 15 per cent to 20 per cent in Queensland and 10 per cent to 15 per cent in New South Wales respectively. I am increasingly of the view that that is something we should be giving consideration to here, especially if the circumstance is such that, with all the different priorities of government, there is not sufficient funding for a greater focus on responsible gambling programs. Well, here is an obvious way of securing revenue for such programs.

It has been said, and I tend to agree, that the safest place to responsibly enjoy making a bet is in a supervised place. It is in a regulated venue. It is at a TAB, where there are trained staff on hand that can monitor behaviour, know the telltale signs of people who perhaps overindulge and can deal with that in an appropriate way. Being able to gamble 24/7 at home, courtesy of foreign-owned online-only bookmakers, is a risk to responsible gambling. During COVID times this of course has driven a huge amount of interest in online gambling, principally with foreign-owned online bookmakers, which has resulted, as has been reported quite widely, in super profits being made by these online-only bookmakers. I think the other conversation here is the need for a national framework to deal with such matters. I acknowledge the former federal minister in this space, Alan Tudge, did his level best to introduce a national consumer protection framework but was not able to quite get there. Perhaps that is something that is worthy of consideration in this conversation as well.

Look, there are some practical things that can be done. It does make sense for foreign-owned online-only bookmakers, such as Bet365, who spend literally hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, to spend more money, frankly, into the coffers of the Victorian government so the Victorian government can then in turn put a greater focus, a sharper focus, on responsible gambling activities. Some other practical things that should be considered—gambling advertising should be restricted to racetracks, regulated gambling venues like pubs and clubs, racing programs, platforms and stations like, the form guideand racing radio programs like Sport 927.

In summary, I think there is a lot we can be doing in the space—more than we have been doing. I commend again the member for Morwell for bringing this matter of public importance to the attention of the chamber, and I implore the government to be bold enough and brave enough to have a serious, fair-dinkum conversation about that point-of-consumption tax with especially those foreign-owned online-only bookmakers. I suggest at the current time the Victorian people in that regard are being taken for a ride.

The SPEAKER: I thank members for raising items as part of the matter of public importance, and I thank the member for Morwell for raising such an important matter of public importance as well.