Gamblers can self-exclude from pokies venues but there’s no evidence a pub or club has ever been prosecuted for breaches
In a courthouse in the Queensland town of Gympie on December 1, 2012, a unique event occurred in Australian gambling history.
An employee at the Freemasons Hotel was fined for failing to take reasonable steps to prevent a self-excluded gambler from playing the poker machines.
ABC Investigations asked each state and territory gambling regulator how many times there had been fines or prosecutions for allowing self-excluded gamblers into venues since these laws were first introduced in the early 2000s.
The Gympie prosecution of an individual employee was the only example provided. There was no evidence that a single pub or club in any state or territory has ever been punished for the same breach of the law (WA does not have poker machines in pubs or clubs, NSW is yet to introduce fines for breaches of self-exclusion laws).
In the Freemasons Hotel case, the fine was a drop in the ocean compared to the $13 billion lost each year in Australia on poker machines.
The court fined the pub’s employee just $440 after she admitted to making 38 gaming machine payments to a self-excluded gambler during a six-month period.
The Reverend Tim Costello from the Alliance for Gambling Reform is astonished that there has been just one prosecution relating to laws designed to prevent gambling addicts from entering venues.
“We routinely hear from people that the self-exclusion scheme is grossly ineffective, and this proves it. One fine of $440 in 15 years across seven states and territories says it all. The industry should hang their collective heads in shame over this.”
Self-exclusion schemes were introduced in various states and territories around 15-20 years ago.
They are designed to allow gamblers who have identified themselves as having a problem controlling their use of poker machines to be put on a register and banned from entering certain premises.
Earlier this year, gambling researchers from CQ University found that “monitoring of self-exclusion has numerous deficiencies”.
The academics conducted focus groups with gaming room staff and found that the flaws in the system included: “Failure to update the self-exclusion register; too many self-excluders for staff to recognise them … and the near impossibility of recognising people from very poor quality photos that were not always accessible to floor staff.”
ABC Investigations has spoken to over 30 problem gamblers and their relatives who have told us that they or their loved ones have been able to continue playing poker machines in venues they are barred from in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, the ACT and the NT.
One woman contacted ABC Investigations from prison, where she is serving time for a gambling-related crime, to highlight what she sees as the deficiencies in the self-exclusion system.
Doug, an Army veteran, previously took ABC Investigations to gaming rooms inside three Sydney hotels he self-excluded from. No-one challenged him as he played the machines.
Victor Dominello, the NSW Minister responsible for gambling, has acknowledged that the self-exclusion system is not working and wants to radically change the laws in the state with the most pokies.
He is proposing fines of up to $27,500 for breaches of self-exclusion and introducing a compulsory pre-loaded card that would be linked directly to the self-exclusion register — blocking problem gamblers who have agreed to bar themselves from venues.
‘These machines destroy people’
Rob Ingmire, 54, has lost his house and around $400,000 due to his poker machine addiction.
“These machines destroy people. It’s the worst drug you could ever take. Staying away from them is pretty much impossible. The only way I could walk away was if I was broke, or if it was closing time,” he said.
Over a decade ago, Mr Ingmire signed up to Victoria’s self-exclusion register. He says he has barred himself from more than 100 gaming rooms in and around Melbourne.
But the system has failed him. By his estimates he has been allowed to gamble “hundreds of times” in venues he has self-excluded from.
“I would’ve lost over $200,000 in pokie rooms I’m meant to be barred from. One security guard told me once, ‘Your photo is up on our wall inside, it’s up to you if you want to leave or not,'” he said.
“Self-exclusion was designed to never work. There’s too much money at stake. The people they make money out of are the people who’ve got a problem with gambling. It’s just a token gesture from the industry.”
Self-exclusion laws were introduced in Victoria in 2003. The Act allows for disciplinary action if “venue operators repeatedly breach their self-exclusion programs”.
The Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) told ABC Investigations this meant that if a venue breached the rules “more than once” then action could be taken.
Mr Ingmire says he has twice made complaints to the VCGLR, alleging repeated infringements made by at least five hotels.
The last time his complaint was investigated in 2018 he was told by the regulator that: “No breaches of gaming legislation have been detected.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for the VCGLR told the ABC: “The VCGLR examined each complaint and found venue operators took all reasonable steps required under the self-exclusion program.”
The regulator also said: “From November 2016 to 30 June 2020 inspectors conducted more than 400 self-exclusion audits at gaming venues.”
When ABC Investigations told Mr Ingmire no venue in Victoria had ever been fined, and that the sole example of a fine for allowing self-excluded gamblers into a gaming room was against a hotel employee in Gympie, his anger was palpable.
“That’s absolutely pathetic. It’s ridiculous. It’s beyond comprehension,” he said.
In Victoria, the industry associations — the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) and Clubs Victoria — conduct self-exclusion programs on behalf of venues.
ABC Investigations asked the Victorian branch of the AHA about alleged breaches relating to Mr Ingmire and whether it reported venues to the VCGLR for self-exclusion breaches. It did not respond.
Mr Costello says the system is simply not good enough.
“It takes a lot of guts and self-awareness from a gambler to go through the steps to self-exclude, which can be relatively onerous in some states. These people have the right to expect that the industry responsible for pushing this addictive product on to them will actually follow through on its end of the deal and ensure those who have self-excluded are not admitted to venues,” he said.
“Surely it is not too much to ask that they direct some of their astronomical profits, profits that often come from gambling harm, into technology and training to ensure self-exclusion is effective?”
A letter from prison
While licensed venues are rarely held accountable for letting self-excluded gamblers carry on losing, more often than not the law catches up with individuals whose gambling has spiralled out of control.
Carly Regan wrote to ABC Investigations from her prison cell, where she is currently serving a two-year sentence for defrauding her workplace to feed her gambling habit.
She said the gambling industry placed too much responsibility on addicted gamblers to act rationally.
“I can sit at home and watch TV and see a gambling advert almost every hour and be advised to just gamble responsibly,” Regan said.
“I can sit in a club being served beers for the third time that week by the same staff for three-plus hours and put $4,000 through the same machine for the third time that week and not be given any information on self-exclusion. The responsibility lies with me — the compulsive gambler.”
Regan wrote to highlight what she sees as the flaws in the self-exclusion system, a scheme that she thinks is invisible and ineffective. She took steps to self-exclude after her arrest.
“I have to go online to figure out what I can do to help myself,” she said.
“I find a form I can fill out and enter the establishments I want to exclude myself from. It will then notify these establishments. I hit submit and that’s that. Apparently. I never get any confirmation. I get no contact from the establishments to confirm I have self-excluded. I have no idea if anything has even happened.”
As the Minister in her home state of NSW contemplates introducing a new system, she wants more responsibility to shift onto those making money from addicted gamblers.
“Sitting here writing this from prison after committing a crime for financial gain to feed my gambling habit, it’s a bit late for me but I hope more information could be put out there for self-exclusion options and more responsibility put on gambling companies, and establishments who shove these disgusting machines in our faces.”