There’s over 200 pokies venues across Sydney that Doug* is barred from. Only two have stopped him from entering.
- The ABC followed a self-excluded problem gambler as he used the pokies at multiple Sydney venues
- ABC Investigations has spoken to gambling addicts in multiple states who say self-exclusion schemes are failing them
- NSW is considering sweeping new laws to curb the loss of billions each year at the pokies
After losing what he describes as “a six-figure sum,” the army veteran joined the self-exclusion program last year at the urging of his counsellor.
Under the scheme, a patron can nominate which venues they want to be banned from. Doug has signed all the relevant papers, provided a photograph for identification purposes and a list of gaming rooms he wants to be barred from. But the nominated venues continue to let him in.
“It’s a joke really. I’ve gambled well over a hundred times in different venues after signing up to the scheme,” Doug told the ABC.
“I’ve put my hand up, said I’m unwell, that I need help with this issue. I’ve got counselling, I signed up to self-exclusion, but I can still empty my life savings into these machines and nothing is done about it.”
ABC Investigations has spoken to over 20 gambling addicts and their relatives in NSW, Victoria and Queensland who say the self-exclusion schemes in each state are failing them and their families.
For Doug, it’s important that governments, industry and the community knows how the system is falling down. To illustrate this, he’s taking the ABC to some of the venues who continue to let him gamble.
A day at the pokies
It’s just before midday on a weekday morning in Sydney’s inner-west, and we’re about to attempt to enter our first gaming room. Doug and I have come to an agreement which he insists won’t jeopardise his recovery.
We will try and enter three venues, stay for around 20 minutes at all three, and interact with the poker machine attendants as much as possible.
He will gamble $10 of my money in each venue so the attendants can see him playing the machines.
First stop is the Burwood Hotel — ranked 13th in NSW pubs for poker machine losses. It’s a venue that should be particularly hard for Doug to get into.
Not only is he on the self-exclusion list here, but he says his gambling counsellor alerted authorities who then contacted the pub to tell them to stop letting him in.
“She told me I was on a ‘high alert’ list and they said there would be extra attention paid by management to make sure I don’t go there.”
When we arrive that doesn’t seem to be the case. We sign in via the COVID QR Code and proceed to the machines. Doug keeps the conversation going with the attendant by asking which machines are “lucky” and orders a beer.
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We play the machines for close to 20 minutes and then leave the venue. Not once was Doug challenged about his self-excluded status.
“As usual, no problem entering, no problem staying and playing regardless of how much I interact with the staff, even though I’ve been to that venue multiple times and spoken to that same staff member multiple times, he seems to be completely oblivious to the fact I am on his venue’s self-exclusion list.”
Pokies takes $100m a year from one council area
It’s not hard to find another venue in Burwood that Doug has been self-excluded from.
In this local council area, over $100 million is lost on the pokies each year.
We walk down Burwood Rd to the Avondale Hotel and stop to talk to the doorman, who signs us in under COVID regulations before letting us into the gaming room.
Doug orders a drink, pulls up to a machine, calls the attendant over and asks him to help change the spin rate.
He gambles some more and has another conversation with the attendant about a recent jackpot that went off. Doug loses my $10 and we leave.
So far our strike rate is zero from two. No-one has intervened to stop Doug gambling. We hop in his car and head to the Regent Hotel in Kingsford, another venue he has self-excluded from.
We scan in on the COVID register at the front bar, chat with the bar staff and head to the pokies room out the back. We order drinks and start playing.
He has a discussion with one staff member about the new Aristocrat machines they have installed in the room after the COVID lockdown. Doug loses my last tenner and we leave without a question being asked about his self-exclusion status.
All three venues were contacted for comment by the ABC but did not respond.
Pokies pubs don’t face any fines
None of the venues face sanctions for allowing Doug to gamble. There are no fines in NSW for letting self-excluded patrons into pubs and clubs.
The army veteran is not the only self-excluded patron who’s finding it easy to get into pokies rooms.
The 2019 NSW Gambling Survey found that 22 per cent of self-excluders had tried to re-enter venues and that 92 per cent had been successful in doing so.
Doug is frustrated that a multi-million dollar system designed to help problem gamblers is not achieving what it’s set up to do. The irony is not lost on him that in each poker machine room, he’s asked to sign in on a COVID register but not a self-exclusion register.
“The government’s just proven how easy and how quickly they can implement these systems if they want to.
“Not only that, the pubs and the venues themselves are actually very compliant overall. So if they can do that, then why can’t they do that for harm-minimisation purposes; for self exclusion purposes? That’s what really makes me angry.”
He wants to see every poker machine in the country installed with a licence card reader.
Victor Dominello, the NSW Minister responsible for gambling, told ABC Investigations he’s open to the idea of technology being used in some form to improve self-exclusion.
“You can use technology to improve lives and reduce suffering, so provided there is privacy and security settings — absolutely.
“First and foremost, I think this is a type of dialogue we need to have.”
NSW changes could see venues fined $27.5k
This week, Mr Dominello released a draft bill that aims to reduce harm from poker machines.
The proposals include fines for pubs and clubs that allow self-excluded patrons like Doug into venues.
While gambling reform advocates have supported the measures, it’s not a forgone conclusion the bill will pass.
Late Friday afternoon, the powerful lobby groups ClubsNSW and the Australian Hotels Association released a joint statement saying that some of the proposed compliance measures for enhancing self-exclusion “would cost the industry millions of dollars at a time when it can least afford it, threatening thousands of jobs and community funding.”
When ABC Investigations confronted the Minister with evidence that Doug had gambled in venues he was excluded from, he said it confirmed to him that action was needed.
“Well, the system is clearly not working. It’s when you hear stories like that, you realise that all we have is cellophane and we do need to put some substance to the reform.”
Researchers flag ‘numerous deficiencies’ in the system
Gambling researchers from CQ University have also identified flaws in the scheme.
Their report, commissioned by the NSW Responsible Gambling Fund, found that “monitoring of self-exclusion has numerous deficiencies.”
The researchers conducted focus groups with gaming room staff and found that the deficiencies in the system included:
- Inadequate communication to staff of who is self-excluded
- Lack of systems for staff familiarisation with photos of self-excluders
- Failure to update the self-exclusion register
- Too many self-excluders for staff to recognise them
- Difficulty of monitoring for partial self-exclusions and people on a multi-venue self-exclusion order (MVSE)
- The near impossibility of recognising people from very poor quality photos that were not always accessible to floor staff.
ClubsNSW runs multi-venue self-exclusion for pubs and clubs in NSW. It would not disclose how much money it makes from running the system.
Its CEO Josh Landis was not available for interview, but in a statement a spokesman for ClubsNSW said its scheme works.
“On average, 100 people are successfully detected trying to breach their self-exclusion at clubs and pubs each month,” said a spokesman.
“Conversely, an average of just over three people per month have been able to successfully breach their self-exclusion at a club.”
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Under the current system, it’s up to staff on the ground and the directions of their managers to make sure self-excluded patrons don’t gamble.
In 2010, the Productivity Commission estimated problem gamblers accounted for around 40 per cent of poker machine losses in Australia. That means there’s a strong economic incentive to keep addicted gamblers coming into venues.
The CQ University researchers discovered that pokies profits had an influence on how seriously the self-exclusion scheme was taken inside venues.
“A manager of a venue in a large hotel group suggested that self-exclusion was not well implemented because of the hotel group’s focus on revenue: it’s probably not policed in our venues as well as it should be, but then there’s a very good reason behind that.
“That’s where most of your money comes from when you think of the venue. I think I’ve seen probably three photos… the photos are always moving. Sometimes they’re on the back of the door in the staff room, sometimes they’re inside this cupboard.”
ClubsNSW has defended its scheme as an effective harm-minimisation tool that has been reviewed by experts. In a statement a spokesperson said:
“It is important to point out that the ClubsNSW MVSE scheme was a world-first and was developed in response to feedback from counsellors and individuals. Previously, patrons could only exclude themselves from one venue at a time.
“MVSE provided them with the opportunity to self-exclude from multiple venues at once.”
Queensland man forced to visit individual venues to ban him
While Queensland at least has fines for venues that fail to enforce self-exclusion, it still does not have a centralised system of multi-venue self-exclusion.
This has made life difficult for Mick Cherry, who has had to visit 35 individual pubs and clubs in his home town of Toowoomba to self-exclude from each.
“It’s a humiliating experience. You have to embarrass yourself 35 times and try and find the duty manager at every pub and club.
“If they’re not there they might say, ‘he’s not here till Thursday can you come back?'”
In Queensland, patrons have to reapply for self-exclusion every five years.
“I was forced to go to 35 venues to fill out forms and have a photo taken, once for the first five-year self-exclusion and all over again for the second five-year term.”
Industry groups dominate gambling working party
The 72-year-old told ABC Investigations he’s been lobbying the Queensland government for seven years to bring in multi-venue self exclusion.
ABC Investigations has seen an email that was sent to Mick over three years ago by a director inside the Department of Justice. It underlies how slow the Queensland government has been to act.
“I appreciate your commitment to reform in this area and can assure you that the self-exclusion working party is actively working on multi-venue exclusions and the broader self-exclusion framework.”
That working party was, according to the Office and Liquor and Gaming, “formed specifically to review Queensland’s self-exclusion regime.”
ABC Investigations has discovered that the working party is dominated by industry groups.
It includes three representatives from casinos, three members of the clubs industry and delegates from Tabcorp, the Australian Hotels Association and the Department of Justice.
There is just one representative from what could be described as a community group — the Gamblers Helpline.
Mick was shocked when ABC Investigations told him that the committee set up to provide advice on self-exclusion policy was stacked with industry representatives.
“So no matter what comes up, they’ve got the numbers. Eight members of the gambling industry! If anything comes up that the gambling industry didn’t like, they’d vote it down!”
The Queensland Office of Liquor and Gaming said it is working on delivering a multi-venue scheme based around a centralised database but gave no date for when that might happen.
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One senior insider at the regulator told ABC Investigations the delays were part of a pattern.
“The regulatory agencies continually drag their knuckles and kowtow to the peak industry bodies that rely upon gaming machine revenue.”
In July, the Queensland government set up an interim system where gamblers can self-exclude from more than one venue at a time if they have a face-to-face meeting with someone from a Gambling Help service.
Mick Cherry is currently going through this process. He said it’s torturous.
“Already it’s taken over two months, and there are still nine venues I can gamble at in and around Toowoomba. I could’ve gambled away a family fortune in that time.
“In other states, this process would take an hour, tops.”
He said when designing self-exclusion programs, governments need to focus on problem gamblers, not the industry.
“These new machines are so addictive. They cause mental health problems, domestic violence, they ruin people’s lives.
“I feel like they are deliberately making self-exclusion as hard as possible for the problem gambler. It’s as if they’ve set it up not to work, to keep the revenue coming in to the publicans and the government and that’s got to change.
*Name withheld for privacy reasons
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