Ballina tradie and pokie survivor Ben Hamilton has kicked off a new anti-poker machine organisation in the Northern Rivers of NSW, called Kickin’ The Punt.
Mr Hamilton said the idea started after his last major gambling relapse back in 2018, which involved a suicide attempt. ‘My wife and I wanted to try something different, so we came up with the idea of Kickin’ the Punt with the objective of changing the way society views gambling.’
By trade, Mr Hamilton is a tiler and waterproofer. Echonetdaily asked him how many years he was a gambler. ‘I basically hit the ground running as soon as I turned 18 with pokies,’ he said, ‘and I gambled right up until towards the end of last year, that was my last bet. So, well over a decade of gambling harm with the pokies, and I’m clear now, since starting Kickin’ the Punt.
‘When I help people it helps me to stay away. I think I’m on the straight and narrow now, and I want to make a difference.’
Pandemic a lifesaver for gamblers
As has been reported by Echonetdaily, and confirmed by Mr Hamilton, a silver lining of COVID-19 for gambling addicts was all the pokie venues shutting down.
‘With the machines being switched off, you can’t play the pokies, so I think it was really good… a lot of people said they felt safe for the first time in a long time with all the machines being switched off, but now in NSW around 55-60% of the machines are back on.
‘There’s less people punting but the revenues are the same if not more as the same time last year, so gambling is getting out of control again now.’
After setting up Kickin’ the Punt with his wife Jasmine, the couple went to see Tamara Smith, the Member for Ballina.
Mr Hamilton said, ‘Tamara was great, she is someone who genuinely cares about her community. Obviously she has to look after all different issues in the community, so I didn’t expect a lot, but what she did say was really comforting to Jasmine and I.
‘She thought that what we’re doing with Kickin’ the Punt was a really important thing. She’s linked us up with a few other people in parliament that will be beneficial for us to talk to.’
Tamara Smith is also a supporter of Kickin’ the Punt’s first public action, a new anti-pokie petition on change.org, which is gathering signatures fast.
‘We launched the petition last night,’ said Mr Hamilton.’ The main objective is to have one venue per town – Northern Rivers first because that’s where we’re based – to go completely pokie-free. That would give people an option to go to a venue and have dinner and drinks, or see a band, without having the machines in the venue as well.
‘If you know how much damage pokies do in the community, and you want to see something change, sign the petition, because the more support and the more voices we get behind Kickin’ the Punt, the more change we can bring about.’
Another supporter is ‘legend’ Willem Powerfish. Mr Hamilton says ‘he’s a bit of a lunatic but he’s got a good heart, and he’s been in our corner since I approached him.
‘He’s a big advocate for mental health, and he’s someone who has a lot of lived experience with poker machines, and he knows the damage that they cause as well, so he’s always plugged us in, and I’ve done a podcast with him. We’ve been given a huge amount of support through him, so we’re really grateful.’
Mr Hamilton said, ‘We’re not here to bash all the venues, and we’re not under any illusion that we’re gonna get rid of poker machines in the whole country, but we would like to see venues take more responsibility, stop trying to put the blame on the people that are struggling with poker machine addictions, and actually start implementing some strategies to help and protect people.
‘I’ve spoken to hundreds of people involved in the industry, and the general consensus is that they know the industry is predatory, and they’re not following their duty of care with the people that are really being harmed by it.
‘I’d like to see one new venue in the Northern Rivers go pokie-free as a result of us lobbying them. Then hopefully we can have more venues put their hand up and get rid of them.’
Mr Hamilton says he’d like to see poker machines confined to the bigger venues, where a self-exclusion policy can be enforced. ‘Pubs and small venues really don’t have the facilities to enforce the self-exclusion program,’ he said, ‘and that program is a big safety net when people get to the point where they know they’re struggling.
‘They can sign that deed of self-exclusion, and if the venues enforce it they can’t gamble in the gaming rooms.’
He says his own story is a perfect example. ‘At the last place I gambled, I was in there for 45 minutes to an hour, and the staff watched me draw two hundred, go in and burn it, draw another two hundred, draw another two hundred, draw another two hundred, and they didn’t even blink an eye.
‘They saw me every time, saw me at the bar, saw that I was flustered, saw that I was anxious, served me alcohol – I wasn’t intoxicated so there was no issue with that – but they knew that I was struggling, and they didn’t do a thing.’
Just getting started
Mr Hamilton says Kickin’ the Punt has grown fast over its first six weeks on social media, and this is just the beginning. He’s urging venues to start coming to the table to start working out how to fix the issue.
‘We are a social media movement, and these venues need to start taking organisations like ours a bit more seriously, otherwise if they continue to punch below the belt we can start to punch below the belt as well.
‘These venues have a responsibility to do the right thing by people. The bottom line is their number one priority, but people are ending their lives because of this, and they need to start taking it a bit more seriously.
‘Gambling is a huge issue in every community, and there’s a strong correlation between gambling and domestic violence, alcohol abuse, homelessness, the links are all there.’
You can sign the change.org petition here, and also check out Kickin’ the Punt on Facebook and other social media platforms.
If this story has brought up issues for you, please call Lifeline on 131114 or visit them on the net. The Northern Rivers Gambling Counselling Service is here.