Yarning about Gambling in Indigenous Communities: An Aboriginal and Islander Mental Health Initiative

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Introduction

National and international evidence suggests Indigenous gambling involvement, gambling expenditures and gambling-related problems are higher than that of non-Indigenous people (Raylu & Po Oei 2004; Delfabbro et al. 2005; Volberg & Wray 2007; Dyall 2010). Dyall argues that it is not only the availability of gambling, but also accompanying historical, economic and political changes that have led to increased gambling problems among Indigenous peoples in particular (Dyall 2007; Dyall 2010). Although the economic and societal implications of problem gambling are well understood (Brady 2004; Raytu & Po Oei 2004; Breen 2007; Dyall 2007), the potential threat of gambling to Indigenous social and cultural values has also been highlighted in the international literature (Dyall 2010).

Gambling is a big and rapidly growing business in Australia. It provides recreational pleasure, while also having adverse social consequences. The costs include financial and emotional impacts on gamblers and on others in their environment (Productivity Commission 2010). The challenge for policy makers and the gambling industry is to reduce the costs of problem gambling, through harm minimisation and prevention measures, while retaining as much of the entertainment benefit as possible (Productivity Commission 1999). Australian Indigenous people's gambling activity has, however, been influenced by distinct social, economic and historical factors. Understanding these influences and current attitudes to gambling is pivotal to the introduction of strategies to minimise gambling-related harm within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This study aimed to explore the socioeconomic and cultural factors linked with gambling in urban and remote Indigenous settings in the Northern Territory, to inform the development of a gambling public health strategy.

Gambling in the Northern Territory

It has been established that gambling activity in the Northern Territory (NT) began in the context of goods trading with the Macassans along the north coast, while modern card playing for money was likely introduced during European colonisation (Altman 1985; Brady 2004; Breen 2007; Christie et al. 2009). The introduction of unemployment benefits in remote communities in 1979 resulted in a rapid increase in access to cash. This was directly observed as leading to increased gambling in one remote community and supports the link between gambling and immediate surplus cash (Altman 1985). Indigenous gambling for money differs from non-Indigenous gambling in its use as a redistributive and accumulative mechanism (Altman 1985; Keen 2010). Research has shown that gambling can provide a means for people with no cash income to gain access to some cash. It also allows people to accumulate resources to purchase costly items, such as vehicles and white goods, for the extended family to use, but without incurring obligations. The emphasis is on the positive value of gambling as an expression of reciprocal social responsibility (Altman 1985; McMillan & Donnelly 2008).

The limited available research evidence on the role of unregulated gambling, such as card games, in remote communities suggests both positive (Christie et al. 2009) and negative impacts on individuals and the community (Stevens & Young 2009; Breen et al. 2010). Gambling provides opportunity to meet cultural needs for storytelling, sharing and socialising in communities and offers a relaxing, enjoyable leisure activity with potentially reduced alcohol consumption (Christie et al. 2009; Breen et al. 2010). However, these positive aspects of Indigenous gambling are increasingly outweighed by the negative impact of changes to the gambling landscape. Indigenous gambling has become widespread over the last three decades, not only in response to improved access to the cash economy, but also due to increased regulated gambling opportunities (Productivity Commission 1999). …