Gambling research centre: more research or more delay?

The government’s reforms to gambling this week, including to the pokie machines seen here, have been described as “watered-down”. AAP/Paul Jeffers

In an agreement announced on Wednesday, the Greens indicated support for the Australian government’s legislation (described almost ubiquitously in the press as “watered-down”) on poker machine pre-commitment.

The government’s bill provides that all poker machines sold in Australia from 2013 must have a capacity for voluntary pre-commitment, so that those who wish to do so may nominate a limit on their gambling expenditure. It is also proposed that a trial of pre-commitment in the ACT will generate evidence to determine whether mandatory pre-commitment should be implemented.

The legislation represents a considerably diminished version of the government’s earlier agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie over a system of mandatory pre-commitment, and for this reason was not originally supported by the Greens.

What appears to have got the legislation over the line is a commitment by the government to the establishment of a National Gambling Research Institute. Although details of this are sketchy, it appears that this will be housed in the Australian Institute of Family Studies and funded to the extent of about $1.5 million a year. It will apparently have an advisory board, with representation from academics, community and, it seems, the gambling industry.

Gambling research in Australia has had a mixed history. Although considerable resources have been devoted to it, particularly over the past 20 years (marking the period of mass expansion of poker machine and other gambling forms) there is sometimes publicly expressed disagreement about the extent and distribution of gambling problems, the exact nature of the harms inflicted by gambling, the relationship between gambling and physical and mental health conditions, the most effective mechanisms to prevent harm, and the efficacy and reach of treatment services.

Amongst the research community, there is a division between those who perceive gambling as an individual pathology, and construe the research agenda accordingly, and those who see it as largely socially determined, based on patterns of regulation, distribution and accessibility. These are far from mutually exclusive domains, but they tend to reflect disciplinary orientations. Further, gambling is a field with an enormous capacity to spawn very focused and detailed studies. These minutiae are often of great academic interest, but they may not advance understanding of the big public policy questions very much.

Much of the apparent uncertainty in the gambling literature, however, reflects industry perspectives. That is, there is much for industry to lose from certain research conclusions, such as whether or not $1 maximum bets on poker machines would reduce harm; such a measure would also almost certainly reduce gambling revenue. As with climate change, industry has variously muddied the waters, often to great effect.

Further, much gambling research in Australia has been funded by state governments, themselves collectively dependent on gambling revenue to the extent of over $5 billion a year. Critics of this body of work (and I include myself in this category) argue that state-funded research programs have often been construed to avoid difficult questions, and rarely to challenge the status quo. As the political adage has it, one should never get between a state premier and a bucket of money, and it may be that state-funded gambling research programs tend to reflect this verity.

Indeed, when one state government (Victoria) established an independent Gambling Research Panel in the early 2000s, it ended up being shut down after a few years of operation, without explanation and well short of its anticipated life. It had asked a few difficult questions, and the answers may not have been pleasing to government.

Whether the new gambling research institute can do a better job than the Productivity Commission’s two inquiries is an interesting proposition. Indeed, whether it can do better than the commission in determining the efficacy of harm-reducing measures such as pre-commitment and $1 maximum bets is an open question. It will depend on the questions and themes the institute is encouraged to explore, whether it is subject to any form of constraint, and the resources available to it. Although more evidence is almost always desirable, deferring action pending further research is a classic delaying tactic of industries that deal in dangerous products — tobacco provides the classic example.

Promising a new body of research may delay reform more than it supports it, and this will be a challenge that this new institute will have to address. Industry opposition to mandatory pre-commitment was ferocious; the argument that more research, and specifically a trial of pre-commitment was needed, appeared early in the Clubs Australia campaign. It seems quite reasonable, but it also delays action for the foreseeable future.

Evidence will never be incontrovertible, or absolute. Even if such evidence were available, it seems inevitable that industry will never agree to harm reduction measures that, in its judgement, seriously threaten its revenue stream. If the new institute helps governments make up their mind, the money will be well spent. Time, as usual, will tell.