Can Labor win the war on gambling advertising or will it capitulate in a brutal betrayal? | Malcolm Farr

When it comes to culture wars there are few more fiercely defended bastions than the culture of gambling in Australia, where resistance to change can be brutal.

The money involved is massive and so is the political peril faced by any government willing to take the industry on.

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, risks the appearance of capitulation to that industry should he next year reject – or dilute – proposals to ban gambling advertising in its most pernicious forms.

Further, he could be accused of abandoning thousands locked in gambling addictions, which can be fed by temptations seen on family television programs and social media.

On the political front, the government must stare down angry media outlets that are themselves entrenched in the gambling ad business and would claim they have already made concessions to reduce the social problems it produces.

For example, there can no longer be gambling ads during children’s programs – hardly a frivolous veto, given the concern over youngsters taking gambling as attractive. A cynic might note that’s not when grow-up punters, the ones with money, are watching.

Televised sport has also had to ensure no gambling identities sneak into shot unannounced. Broadcasters must make sure anyone representing a gambling organisation is clearly identified and doesn’t join the commentary crew.

So there has been a recognition that gambling promotion is not always appropriate.

But it’s not gambling itself which the Albanese government has been urged to ban. It’s the promotion of it in those TV, radio, and online advertisements most have seen, with the attached taglines carrying puny warning of potential harm.

Cigarette packs might carry warnings of painful death, but gambling ads don’t mention in similar graphic form the threat of destitution.

The insignificance of the warnings is magnified when you consider the size of the gambling industry, estimated to be worth $425bn a year and growing.

The related ad market is also huge. An analysis commissioned by the Australian Communications and Media Authority found between May 2022 and April 2023 there had been more than a million gambling ads on free-to-air television and radio, worth an estimated $238m.

A House of Representatives committee produced a cross-party recommendation for a four-step elimination of gambling advertising, beginning with a ban on gambling ads during news and current affairs programs, on social media and online, and on radio during school dropoff and pickup times.

After three years there would be a ban on ads an hour before and after a sporting event, a halt to all broadcast advertising of online gambling between 6am to 10pm, and an end to all online gambling advertising and sponsorship.

That’s the blueprint Albanese is now considering.

He might take some relief from the public stance of the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, who in May supported a ban on ads during and an hour either side of a televised sporting fixture.

And there may be comfort from a May opinion poll in the Australian Financial Review that found 70% of respondents supported that ban.

However, Dutton has been mute on other measures. He said in June he wants to see the government’s response.

Further, outspoken Nationals could harness punters against any government bans.

In June Nationals MPs Barnaby Joyce and Keith Pitt argued against total bans on online advertising for gambling, saying it was a “legitimate industry” and a ban might wreck media companies.

“You can moralise to an extent but I’d need some convincing [on a total ban],” Joyce told Guardian Australia.

Should Albanese either reject or dilute the bans, he would be accused of wimping under pressure from major media outlets and the gambling industry. Dutton would be keen to highlight a perceived weakness.

Plus, should he adopt the bans he might rile some regional MPs who would campaign as a punter’s friend.

Said Pitt: “We shouldn’t absolutely prohibit it, because there are some people who quite like a punt, it’s a legitimate industry.”

And Albanese could end up in serious trouble with some of his own troops, as well as the feisty crossbenches in the House of Representatives and the Senate, should he retreat from the plan.

A rejection would also be seen by some as a betrayal of a most personal kind.

Albanese showed genuine grief over the death of Peta Murphy, a Labor backbencher who led the ad ban campaign in the House of Representatives committee.

That grief and his respect for her campaign give him little room to move. They oblige him to honour her memory and her words or face a charge of hypocrisy.

“Gambling advertising is grooming children and young people to gamble, and encourages riskier behaviour. The torrent of advertising is inescapable,” Murphy wrote in the committee report.