Calls for stronger pokies laws after gambling harm laid bare

George Nathan once worked in debt recovery, repossessing houses and cars from gambling addicts who couldn't pay their bills. Then he became an addict himself.

A new report is urging the Barr government to roll out mandatory precommitment in all poker machine venues and reduce the number of machines by half, after laying bare the destruction gambling addictions have wreaked on lives in Canberra.

Former gambling addict George Nathan wants stricter controls in Canberra. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

Former gambling addict George Nathan wants stricter controls in Canberra. Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

The ACT Council of Social Service and the Canberra Gambling Reform Alliance have compiled stories from problem gamblers to show the damage caused by poker machine addictions.

The organisations have called for mandatory pre-commitment for all poker machine venues, $1 bet limits on all machines, the same rules for EFTPOS machines as ATMs, and a reduction in the number of poker machines operating in the ACT by half.

They also want the community contributions scheme to be overhauled to have funds administered by ACT Health and recognise money and revenue only, not in-kind contributions.

The report comes after Monash University gambling expert and harm minimisation advocate Dr Charles Livingstone last week found the ACT's poker machine regulatory system is the nation's most lax, while the density of the machines in Canberra is second only to NSW.

Canberra Gambling Reform Alliance co-chair Rebecca Vassarotti said the stories that have been collated show when people needed support, the community let them down.

"The regulation we're calling for won't impede or restrict recreational gamblers but will make a real difference to those struggling with gambling harm," Ms Vassarotti said.

ACTCOSS director Susan Helyar said their report dispelled the idea gambling harm only affected a small number of people.

"These stories seem stark and extreme but figures say 15,000 people in Canberra are experiencing a problem with gambling and almost 50,000 other people are affected by that. It's hard to argue it's one-offs and small proportions," Ms Helyar said.

Mr Nathan was one of the contributors to the report but waived his anonymity to expose the damage his addiction to poker machines caused.

Now a financial counsellor, he said depression caused him to seek solace in the machines.

"I was employed in the debt recovery industry for 25 years. Over the course of time I became really depressed about what I had to do," Mr Nathan said.

"I had to ring people to get them to pay bills they couldn't afford to pay, repossess cars just to hit KPIs. That depression led to my poker machine addiction. They allowed me to escape the world and the job I hated doing."

Mr Nathan would leave his job in Blacktown and stop halfway home to the Blue Mountains at the Lapstone Hotel three or four nights a week.

He would put through a couple of hundred dollars through the machine each night, although has never tallied the total amount he lost.

"I shudder to think about it. It was a lot of money. I can't even put a price on what I lost, I would feed $50s, $100s through the machine like paper," Mr Nathan said.

"I'd have a twinge of regret then I'd come back next day and do it all again."

Mr Nathan's secret shame lasted six months, before he came clean to his wife.

"When I told her about it, there was lots of tears, anger, emotion," he said.

"She sought to find out why I was doing it, even though she was angry. She got to the source of why I was doing it and that's when I made the decision to walk away from my career."

They uprooted their lives to Queensland, where Mr Nathan interviewed for and got a job in debt recovery.

"Half an hour later I rang back and said I can't do it anymore," he said.

Moving gave Mr Nathan the distance he needed to shake his addiction once and for all.

His experience in debt recovery led him to a career as a financial counsellor, where he now helps people with gambling addictions.

It's been 12 years and now Mr Nathan can walk through a gaming room at a club with no urge to gamble.

However he believes the ACT's existing gambling laws aren't doing enough to protect people.

"People don't come to see me because they've looked at a sticker or a poster in a gaming venue. The whole gamble responsible campaign is ludicrous, it has no effect whatsoever," he said.

"There needs to be education in high schools, teaching people about gambling addictions. ATMs should not be anywhere in the vicinity of a gaming room. And let's go back to one dollar coins, let's not have the ability to put $50s and $100s through machines. Hopefully that will reduce the money lost on poker machines."

  • The ACT Gambling Counselling and Support Service, 1800 858 858
  • Gambler’s Help Youthline, 1800 262 376
  • Lifeline 13 11 14