News story on Victoria's pokies problem.

This is a hard news story i wrote for RMIT about pokies. It was when the debate about pre-commitment technology and Andrew Wilkie’s requests for reforms were just beginning.

Gabriela Byrne is 54, successful, happily married and has two gorgeous children.

But 18 years ago she contemplated committing suicide, more

than once.

Ms Byrne had an addiction to pokies which cost her $40,000, her job, and nearly her life.

“The first time I played was on a lunch break, after i’d just had a fight with my boss.”

“I’d never gambled before but they looked so attractive, the lights were flashing and music was playing.”

Soon she was playing the pokies up to five hours a day and cleared out her family’s bank accounts.

Ms Byrne realized she had a problem and went to help groups and counselling for about a year.

But it was not until she relapsed that she overcame the addiction.

“When my husband was out of town I went gift shopping, but I ended up at the pub.”

I thought I was cured, and I could be near the machines, but I couldn’t”

Gabriela spent all the money on her cards.

She then moved on to a nearby casino, where she was lent money to continue playing.

“When I came home I knelt on the kitchen floor and screamed with shame.”

“But when my husband came home, he said he knew from the look on my face that I would never gamble again.”

Ms Byrne now runs a counselling program for problem gamblers called “Free Yourself.”

She supports plans for precommitment technology on poker machines.

The system, proposed by independent MP Andrew Wilkie, will allow gamblers to nominate a specific amount or time that can be reached before they get shut out of the system.

The proposal came after this year’s Productivity Commission’s report into gambling found at least 160,000 Australians have a severe gambling problem.

It also found more than 75 per cent of Australians with a gambling problem spend most of their money on poker machines.

But Richard Evans, CEO of Clubs Victoria said poker machines are not the worst form of gambling.

He also said when they’re used in clubs they’re not for profit, meaning the funds get driven back into the community.

“It’s not as if they’re the satan’s tool of gambling,” said Mr Evans.

But Ms Byrne said poker machines can be deceptive.

“Yes they have the best odds, but the jackpot is split up between all the machines in one club,so you think if you keep putting money in you’re eventually going to win, but you don’t”

“I know of one young woman who lost seven thousand dollars in 45 minutes,on a poker machine.”

Mr Evans also said the government is confusing moral issues with recreational issues.

“People like Andrew Wilkie will never be satisfied with gambling, that’s their morals,” Richard Evans said.

“But if people want to gamble they will, and you can’t stop them from doing that.”

Mr Evans says that if you shut people out from electronic gaming machines, they will just move on to other forms of gambling, like the studies have shown in other places restriciting gambling such as Norway.

“We support personal responsibility, it’s about choice.”

But Ms Byrne says when you’re addicted, you don’t have a choice anymore.

“If we look at the numbers of people that are affected by poker machines,you could fill two MCG stadiums full.”

“I think that’s too many people for a government to look at and say, ‘We have a clear conscience about what we’re doing.’”

“It’s the job of the government to protect the citizens, and they’re exploiting the most vulnerable.”

“That’s not good enough.”

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