If you have a tendency to roll your eyes to the back of your skull on hearing the term "un-Australian", brace yourself. Starting from Monday next week, you’re going to hear it a lot more. Across newspapers, radio, television and the internet, a $2 million advertising campaign funded by Clubs Australia is going to hammer in the idea that independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie’s proposed pokie machine reforms — supported by the Federal Government and a reported two-thirds of polled Australians — is un-Australian.
Still, for a campaign that hinges upon ideas of national identity, it’s almost heartening to see that Clubs Australia’s idea of Australian-ess is a broad, multicultural one. Their website might predominantly be in English, but they also provide their anti-pokies-reform message via PDFs in other languages from the homepage. Jeremy Bath, spokesperson for Clubs Australia, says they want to ensure the message is heard among all communities. "This is a campaign for all Australians," he tells New Matilda. "We want to make sure that every Australian — whether they’re of non-English speaking background, or even, indeed, if they don’t speak English — understands the ramifications of what’s being proposed by Andrew Wilkie’s poker machine reforms."
Conspicuously though, all the languages offered are Asian ones: Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean. No Italian, Greek or Arabic, even though they’re also among the most commonly spoken languages other than English in the country. "Look," Bath says, "I’d love to have the website translated in 125 different languages. But from a cost perspective, that’s simply not possible."
He clarifies: "Certainly, those nationalities [Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean] were chosen because they are nationalities or ethnicities where the club mentality is very popular. If you go to a club in Western Sydney or South Western Sydney — what you might call ‘club heartland’ — you’ll find the Vietnamese, the Chinese, the Koreans are very well represented among club members. People of Asian heritage are valued to the club industry. But, I think you have to be fair, and say they’re no more valued than any other nationality or ethnicity to the club industry."
There are few studies that have examined the dollar value that specific ethnic groups represent to the gambling industry. However, one 1997 study for the Victorian Casino and Gaming Authority (VCGA) reported people of South-East Asian background made up between 25 to 31 per cent of all Crown Casino patrons. For various cultural and social reasons, Arabic, Greek, Italian and Spanish speakers tend to prefer gambling at home and cafés; Asian language speakers gravitate towards casinos and electronic gaming machines — often because they represent a social public space where they can exclusively speak their own language among friends and bilingual staff.
However, studies have showed that gambling problems are more prevalent in people of Asian background than other Australians. In 2004, The Australian reported on a wave of gambling addiction among Asian school students that saw one 17-year-old Chinese student lose $40,000 over five months at a single casino alone. Another 2000 study for the VGCA found that, for various cultural and social reasons, specific ethnic groups were more at risk of developing problematic gambling habits, even though there was actually less participation in gambling:
"Gambling participation rates were lower for CALD [culturally and linguistically diverse]communities than for the general community, but … rates of problem gambling among the communities studied (Vietnamese, Greek, Chinese and Arabic speaking) were around five times greater than in the general community."
Anh Nguyen is an English-Vietnamese gambling counselor and community educator in Victoria. Her bilingual counseling service is part of a pilot program that aims to address the under-representation of culturally and linguistically diverse communities accessing mainstream gambling counselling services. In its first year, Nguyen has spoken to roughly 50 clients at an extreme stage of problem gambling. Clients who talk to her are usually, as she described it to New Matilda, "at their wit’s end".
"They’ve tried everything and they’ve really got nothing else they can do. They’re usually in a lot of debt and, most of the time, they’ve got some sort of connection with loan sharks. That’s usually when they come to see me; because they don’t know what to do anymore."
Nguyen has seen marriages break up and people commit crimes to support their gambling problem. One client of hers was a woman who had borrowed $50,000 from a loan shark, was paying $5000 a week in interest and was unable to sustain the payments. She ended up selling her house, her business and divorced her husband. "It was quite sad for me to see her in the really late stage [of addiction]," Nguyen says, "because she was considering trafficking heroin interstate and overseas just so she could pay off her debt."
Nguyen hesitates in saying whether she thinks Wilkie’s proposals will have an effect on the people within the Vietnamese community that she counsels. "I don’t know," she says. "There’s a belief you can gamble responsibly. You can do things or implement strategies to help you reduce the likelihood of your gambling become a problem. And definitely, limiting the amount of money you bring would … limit the possibility of gambling becoming a problem. But in saying that, it’s not the only way." A specific problem for Vietnamese communities, she says, is their accessibility to loan sharks. Nguyen says that alone may make it difficult for mandatory pre-commitment to help.
In any case, Clubs Australia says that their Un-Australian campaign isn’t just targeting gamblers, and that the message to all ethnic communities is uniform among languages. "You don’t need to be a gambler to benefit from the club industry," Bath tells New Matilda. "Every time someone goes to a club and has a cheap, affordable meal, that meal has been subsidised on the back of poker machines and poker machine revenue. The message we deliver to Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans — to any ethnicity — is no different to what we deliver to the Anglo community. Any reform that proposed to damage the ability of clubs to serve the community is very un-Australian."
For once, that phrase might actually be appropriate. As much as Australians apparently support pokie reform, gambling is embraced by this country with a near-universal passion. In 2007, the BBC reported that over 80 per cent of Australians gambled, which amounted to the highest rate in the world. On average, we spend more on gambling every week than on alcohol and petrol, and nearly as much as clothes.
Next week, we’ll see our sense of national identity questioned ad nauseum over every media platform available. Characters with names like Brucie will talk to us from pubs, using phrases like "quiet beers" and "relaxing at the local". Neither Brucie nor his friends will want pollies watching what they bet on; they don’t want to be treated as if they’re criminals. "No way," they’ll say. "A licence to have a punt? It’s Un-Australian. They’ll be telling us how many beers to have next."
Still, if Clubs Australia really wanted to get the message across properly, you’d also hear characters like Mr Wong, Mrs Tran and Miss Kim conveying the same message about un-Australian-ness in Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean. With a $20 million budget, you almost have to wonder why Clubs Australia didn’t go down that path. Still, if you’re Asian-Australian and have gambling problems in your family, this might also be a rare occasion where you’re grateful for being excluded.
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