Whose problem is it? It’s all of ours

THE death of Brian Yao while his mother, Jie Yu, played poker machines followed a series of reported incidents involving Asian-Australians leaving their children in cars while they gambled.

It is unclear whether Asians have a greater problem with gambling than other ethnic groups. A small study done as part of research commissioned by the Victorian Casino and Gaming Authority found that Chinese-Australians were seven times more likely to gamble heavily than the wider community.

But this does not necessarily equate to gambling problems, says researcher Rick Yamine, because many Chinese have a high discretionary income and can afford their gambling. And usually, he says, they do not play the pokies, preferring traditional games such as pai gow and sic bo and lucky-number games such as roulette. He says Jie Yu’s case was not typical.

But Asians do make up a higher-than-expected proportion of families over whom there are gambling-related neglect notifications, according to Jenny McAuley, Victoria’s Assistant Director of Child Protection. “Our figures would reflect that the Asian community does struggle with gambling. Certainly this is reflected in the profile of people that are notified to our services … The Asian community is generally very aware of this problem, and is responding to it (by) supporting community members.”

But McAuley believes the problem of gambling-related neglect is probably under-reported, which means that the families who do enter the child-protection system might not be representative of what is happening in the wider community.

Ainslie Hannan, who contributed to the Playing for Time report, is concerned that Jie Yu and other Asians can be made scapegoats in the media for problems she believes are caused by state gaming policy and the availability of poker machines. (There are five pokies venues within a five-kilometre radius of Yu’s Ferntree Gully home).

Hannan says, “There’s a theory called the theory of exceptionality. It says that if there is a structure in the state that doesn’t work, like gaming policy, you get a marginalised group and say it’s about them, rather than saying it’s about the broader community and the amount of gaming … Who puts the state on trial?”

Julie Nelson, of Gamblers Help, says that viewing such a tragedy as a minority group’s problem helps ward off the anxiety a death such as Brian’s arouses in the community. “Part of that is about society saying, `It can’t happen to us; we are all normal. This couldn’t happen to me or anybody I know.”‘

Also see: Ending The Affair and Gambling With Life.

First published in The Age.

Learning to live together peacefully

DUTCH academic and author Paul Scheffer visited a school in the Belgian city of Antwerp, where 70 per cent of the students were Muslim. The teachers called him aside to ask his advice about a problem.

”The teachers told me it was very difficult to talk about the Second World War and the Holocaust because the students didn’t want to hear this, they said it was all lies,” he says. ”In biology class, they didn’t want to hear about evolution. In literature, they didn’t want to hear about Oscar Wilde because he was homosexual. Physical education classes were difficult because they didn’t want boys and girls to be together.

”What does a policy of multiculturalism tell you to do in such a situation? It is a philosophy of avoidance. It perpetuates the first stage of a migrant community, which is living side by side but separately from the wider society. It doesn’t give you a clue about what you need to do next.”

Scheffer, now professor of European studies at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, agrees with German Chancellor Angela Merkel that multiculturalism in Europe is dead, a failed policy unable to come to grips with today’s social realities. In 2000, he wrote an essay warning of this kind of eventuality, intending to criticise a smug Western elite that he believed was ignoring the social disadvantage of others.

In The Multicultural Drama, he warned that many first-generation migrants and their children lagged behind in terms of jobs and education and that more needed to be done to help them. But he also pointed out many of them were unwilling to accept a liberal society and religious pluralism.

The essay took off like a rocket, sparking some debates in terms that were not of Scheffer’s making and which made him ”pretty miserable”. First it was used to back right-wing rhetoric on race. After the 9/11 attacks, however, it morphed again, with the debate becoming focused on religion. Scheffer says that in Europe, ”9/11 made the question of migrants into the question of Muslims”.

Farooq Murad, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, puts it more strongly: ”Suddenly, this large faith community, which represents one-fifth of the people on this earth, became, in the eyes of the Western world, criminals, or at least [people who were] suspected of harbouring that point of view.”

Murad says 9/11 has made daily life much harder for Muslims in myriad ways. One study found that Asians – in Britain, most of them are Muslim – are 46 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than non-Asians.

”I have lived in England since I was a teenager,” he says. ”Suddenly, overnight, you feel an outsider, you feel suspected, you watch your behaviour. Boarding a train, you feel awful that you might be causing distress to your fellow travellers. On a plane you may need your bag in the overhead compartment but you don’t get it because you don’t want to cause alarm.”

All this, he says, despite the fact that Muslim leaders have repeatedly condemned terror attacks, and the fact that Muslims were among the victims of both 9/11 and 7/7 (the London bombings in 2005).

He disagrees with Scheffer’s interpretation of multiculturalism; it shouldn’t mean ghettos, or separate school curriculums, he says – and he points out that all major religions, not just Islam, have minorities with rigid orthodox views.

The spotlighting of tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities was not the only aftershock of 9/11 in Europe. As anxious nation-states tried to tighten their security against an amorphous, stateless threat, they introduced new laws, curbed long-standing civil rights, and developed different policing techniques, especially with regard to counterterrorism.

Under the leadership of US president George W. Bush, several European countries, including Tony Blair’s UK, also joined ”the coalition of the willing” in the Iraq war and the military operations in Afghanistan.

Britain and the continent were familiar with terrorism on their own turf in a way that the United States was not, says security expert Tobias Feakin, pointing to the history of the Basques in Spain, the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, and the IRA in Britain. So Europe did not experience quite the shock America did with the advent of Islamist terrorism, he says, but it was appalled by the magnitude of the destruction on September 11.

Then came Europe’s own Islamic extremist attacks: 191 dead in Madrid in 2004, and 52 killed in London on July 7, 2005. Feakin said Europe had to develop new responses to Islamist terror because it was very different to what had come before: no warning was given before an attack, bombers were willing to die themselves, the aim was simply to kill the maximum number of people as dramatically as possible, and there was no clear political agenda – at least, not one the Western public could understand.

Feakin, who is director of the national security and resilience department of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in the UK, says Britain responded to the London attacks and to several cases of lone terrorists with a raft of measures.

“The law was changed to create a detention-without-charge period, so someone can be arrested but not formally charged to allow police additional time to investigate in order to gather the rest of the evidence,” he says. ”Police were dealing with huge bodies of evidence, sometimes in international languages they didn’t understand, or with encrypted file sources.

”Stop-and-search powers were brought in at a later stage, so that police could stop anyone they felt they had a reason to, and we got control orders to put someone under house arrest and control their movements and communications … even without charge or conviction.

”And counterterrorism policing is very different in the UK since 9/11; counterterrorism police hubs in co-ordination with MI5 have been placed right across the UK.”

This tense atmosphere was further fuelled by the murders in the Netherlands of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn and filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, the latter sparking more than 100 retaliatory attacks on Muslim targets such as mosques.

Some countries have allowed post-September 11 fears about Islam to rigidify into a determination to resist its symbols. France has banned the face-covering burqa in public and the headscarf in schools, arguing that they were an affront to the nation’s secularism; the Irish have banned the burqa from classrooms; and the Swiss voted for a national ban on minarets (the towers on mosques) in a referendum sponsored by the extreme right but opposed by the government.

The paradox is that while such civil measures have increased, the debate is now looking more critically at initial responses to the crisis.

The former head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller, last week argued in a public lecture that it was a mistake to have called the response to September 11 ”the war on terror” because it legitimised terrorists as warriors. She also criticised the shrinking of civil liberties, arguing that this was ”handing victory to the terrorists”.

Feakin says Britain is soon to roll back some security measures that were found to be too heavy-handed. Meanwhile, support for al-Qaeda has fallen across the Arab world because of its attacks in Iraq: ”They slaughtered thousands of fellow Muslims. It was an incredibly hardline approach that seemed to go against the ethos of taking the war to the US.”

The Arab Spring might lessen Muslim frustration, too, in a way that siphons off the anger that spurred terrorism, Feakin says. ”Al-Qaeda used to talk about the oppressive governments across the Arab world and now they are gone. If democracy there is successfully allowed to develop in a proper manner, you could see al-Qaeda become completely irrelevant. But if you see another kind of abuse of power develop, that will go with the al-Qaeda agenda.”

It is a view Scheffer shares. If the Arab Spring lessens the sense of grievance about dictatorial regimes supported by the West, ”that might change the equation, especially now that people have seen the genuine effort by France and Britain in Libya. It makes it harder to argue that the West is trying to push the Arab world into a corner.”

Scheffer’s new book, Immigrant Nations, looks at how immigration is changing the world. He says that researching the topic has reassured him that the current tensions between Europe’s 20 million Muslims and their neighbours are to be expected and should ease over time.

”I’m confident that the conflict we are witnessing isn’t a sign of the failure of integration,” he says. ”It’s part of searching for a new understanding of how to be with each other, and that is often painful and difficult.”

He says the history of immigration in the US shows new communities typically go through three phases: avoidance, when they live separately; conflict, as they begin to rub up against the existing community and its different ways; and, finally, accommodation, as both sides learn to live with each other.

But he says that in order to reach the final stage there must be acceptance of mutual values, including religious freedom, freedom of speech, and equality of treatment.

The key is reciprocity: ”If I have a class of boys from a Moroccan background, I ask, ‘Why are you angry?’ They might say it is because they are discriminated against; they want to be treated as equals. ‘But then there is perhaps a question of the equal treatment of women, or of homosexuals; can you live with that idea? Because if you think it’s an important value, you can’t just pick and choose when to apply it.’ They see the fairness of the argument.

”But you are not going to force people to change their thinking through laws or banning the burqa or saying you can’t build a mosque. It’s a matter of explaining that the freedoms you are demanding can only survive if you grant them to people with whom you deeply disagree … If not, you are transforming yourself into an outsider.”

Murad agrees, and points to the need for visionary political leadership to help heal the rifts of the past decade. He says, ”Muslims and Christians and Jews have created great societies together in the past. We share a great deal of common values, and in a shrinking world, [living together peacefully] is not a matter of choice any more.”

Meet the Faids, who would be kept waiting by new rules

ANDREW Robb smiled and congratulated the beaming Faid family as he handed them their citizenship certificates yesterday.
If the parliamentary secretary for immigration’s Government has its way, though, families in the Faids’ situation would not yet be eligible for citizenship.
Khadiga and Mohamed Faid and their five children came to Australia from Sudan two years ago. Mr Faid has little English, but has learned the main words to explain his story. Why did they come? “War,” he says. “Refugee.”
Why Australia? “Australia freedom country. Safe here.”
His oldest son, Abdelaziz, must help translate the next question from reporters. How does Mr Faid feel about the Federal Government’s proposals for an English test and a test of Australian values before migrants will be given citizenship?
After rapid consultation and much gesticulation, Abdelaziz shakes his head. “Doesn’t want it. He doesn’t know English.”
But Mr Faid wants to make it clear that learning it is one of his goals. “I am doing the language classes, and my wife. In Footscray.”
Asked about the Faid family after the ceremony at the Immigration Museum in Flinders Street, Mr Robb acknowledged that, under planned changes, such migrants would have to be in Australia for at least four years, not two, before becoming citizens.
They would also need a working knowledge of English so that they could integrate effectively, “to hold down a job, and be able to talk to their workmates, read a safety sign, fill in a form”.
Is the citizenship test proposal aimed at Muslims, or is it coincidence that the question of Australian values among migrants has arisen at the same time as concerns about Islam and terrorists?
“The whole issue of terrorism around the world, in combination with globalisation, has created a sort of general anxiety amongst not only the Australian community but other communities, and a threat to their identity,” Mr Robb said.
“A lot of Australians feel, ‘who are we, and where do we fit in the world?’ And they want migrants to come – we are a migrant country – but I think they increasingly want to feel that anyone who comes does form a commitment to the country and does understand the country. That if they take the pledge at a citizenship ceremony, they understand what they are pledging.”
So that no Australian citizen would argue for the setting up of sharia law here, for example?
“No. Well, whatever – I mean, it is not directed at Muslims, but it will help the Muslim community as much as it will help Eastern Europeans, South Americans, anyone coming here,” Mr Robb said.
The Government has prepared an advertising campaign encouraging citizenship, which began in the media last night.
Among others who “took the pledge” yesterday, views about the test proposal were mixed. Kimberley Anderson is a teacher from the US who married an Australian. She decided to take out citizenship after boys in her history class at St Bede’s College, Mentone, wrote essays about why it is great to be Australian.
Regarding an English test, she said: “I think there’s a place for it. But I taught these boys about the White Australia policy, which I found appalling, and if there are echoes of that in this test – if it’s used to exclude – then I feel seriously uncomfortable with it.”
Fiona Morris is a nurse-manager who arrived from England with her husband and their three children three years ago. She questions how an English test could be applied. “Which English are you going to test? Australian, American, British? It’s very colloquial. And at what level are you going to test it?”
As for values: “That’s all very nebulous. Are you talking morality? Culture? Politics?”
Her husband David Morris, an engineer, believes that anyone who wants to be a citizen should speak the language of the country, but he says the values push is “a bit of fluff, really”.
“I didn’t hear any definition of Australian values today . . . unless you ask whether they drink VB, and if they don’t they fail.”

First published in The Age.

Still jobs for the boys, Guv’nor?

The new governor is a good bloke, but still just another of the blokes.
MELBOURNE has racism. You often hear it from taxi drivers. It can show itself coarsely in the oaths of cricket crowds or delicately in the poisonous patter of dinner parties. The veils of Muslim women can be torn off in the street, and they and their children can be spat upon by strangers.
But Melbourne is also a town that turned out in great numbers to support one of its wayward sons who came from an ethnic background, Nguyen Tuong Van, the Vietnamese-Australian drug runner recently hanged in Singapore. A town, like a race, is as complicated and contradictory as the individuals who make it up.
Melbourne is now a place where several of the most eminent citizens are men from ethnic backgrounds. The Premier, Steve Bracks, comes from a Lebanese family; the Lord Mayor, John So, is Chinese-Australian; and the head of the AFL (probably the most prominent role of the lot in such a footy-mad city) is Greek-Australian Andrew Demetriou. This week it was announced that our new governor will be Professor David de Kretser, a renowned scientist who migrated from Sri Lanka to Australia when he was nine.
It is an impressive line-up in the tolerance-and-diversity stakes. It sends powerful messages about the kind of place Melbourne is – or wants to be. Migrant parents can have some faith in the prospects for their children. Institutional racism is, at worst, muted, and public discourse is civil. The media treated de Kretser’s family history as a heart-warming tale of migrant triumph, not as cause for disdain.
This city has its racial tensions – ethnic soccer riots come to mind – but we have seen nothing like Sydney’s race-based pack rapes of Australian girls by gangs of Lebanese-Australian youths. The week of the Cronulla riots, both Skip and Lebanese young people in Melbourne received text messages urging them to gather at beaches to fight. They ignored them. It was the rival text messages urging a peace rally that won a turnout. Melbourne is a more tolerant place than Sydney.
Researchers suggest this is partly because Sydney has developed closed ethnic enclaves but Melbourne’s ethnic communities are more mixed up together and more scattered among WASP communities.
That’s just another way of saying that migrants in Melbourne don’t feel as “locked out” as those in Sydney. As the world saw with Paris, it is that sense of being shut out – literally, in terms of living in a ghetto, and metaphorically, in terms of not having opportunities – that fuels racial violence.
So it’s a good thing that our Premier continues to attend to multiculturalism, one of several reasons he chose de Kretser. Racism is like a disease; it requires regular vaccination and the maintenance of herd immunity to keep it at bay.
All of this makes it almost shabby to pick holes in Bracks’ appointment of de Kretser, who seems a lovely man and an excellent candidate. I feel like Oliver Twist, asking timorously, “Please sir, can I have some more?”
Because this most worthy line-up of eminent citizens might be ethnically diverse but it is still strikingly monochrome in one respect: it has no women. Is it true to tell migrants that anything is possible in this new land? Or must we in all honesty confine that promise to their sons?
The argument that there aren’t enough women with appropriate professional backgrounds doesn’t wash any more. Science, academia and the professions now have many women in their 50s, and not a few in their 60s, who have the qualities Bracks said he was looking for: independence of mind, an ability to relate to the broader community in a non-partisan way, and humility.
In New Zealand, the Prime Minister (Helen Clark), the Governor-General (Silvia Cartwright) and the head of the largest company (Theresa Gattung, Telecom) are all women.
Cartwright once said she thought intelligent women wanted three things in life – marriage, children and career – but that most could have only two of the three. This, of course, is because behind almost every great career man with a family is a woman who runs it for him. The great career woman is less likely to find a partner whose own sense of purpose is linked to supporting her.
Public appointments of men with ethnic backgrounds are not new. What would break the mould is a qualified woman who was also a single mother, or who had spent years away from a high-powered career to raise her children, or who even – mercy on us all – never married at all. Maybe she could be a woman who also represents multiculturalism or indigenous Australians.
Because women will never “have what it takes” as long as part of what it “takes” is a wife.

First published in The Age.

City divided as a symbol laid to rest

IN THE age of reality TV, anybody can be a celebrity. And in the age of modern electronics, anybody can film one – never mind the manners. Just ask Kim Nguyen, who sat prayerfully through a funeral service that was foreign to her while ordinary people she had never met tried to snap her with still or video cameras held in the palms of their hands.
Her front-row position, with son Khoa and others, protected her for the first part of the service. But when the crowds lined up for communion and blessings from the priests, a throng developed in front of her.
Dozens wanted to express their condolences in person, but some had also come for the spectacle and were keen to immortalise their own small fragment of it. It took several minutes of quiet but firm instructions from presiding priests to hustle everyone back to their places.
That’s what happens when a person becomes a symbol for a cause; when a family’s tragedy has been media fodder for weeks; when incense swirls over the coffin the way controversy has swirled around the person inside it.
While those in the cathedral celebrated the life of the convicted drug smuggler they believed had been reborn on death row, many outside it were angry at the attention Nguyen Tuong Van’s case has drawn.
“Bill from Broadford” told the ABC announcer Jon Faine yesterday: “I’m absolutely disgusted by this hysterical worshipping of Nguyen . . . One-minute silence, praised by lawyers, attendance by politicians at the funeral, for a convicted drug criminal? . . . People are just conveniently skipping over the consequences of the actions of these people. They’ve done it for greed and profit and they don’t care how much suffering they bring back to Australia. So why should they be treated like they’re war heroes?”
A taxi driver ferrying a passenger to the church service was similarly irritated. “I got sick and tired of hearing about it in the media,” he grumbled. “He knew what the rules of that country were. You do the crime, you do the time.”
But the issue for many in the cathedral was that Nguyen was not allowed to do the time but was hanged at 25. His death – or the cause of fighting the death penalty – yesterday attracted an extraordinary cross-section of Melbourne: Hindus in saris, Muslims in veils, a Catholic philosophy lecturer, an Orthodox priest, a Buddhist monk in saffron robes.
Irene Wilson, a grandmother studying theology, had travelled 350 kilometres from Mount Beauty for the service. She said she wanted to “pay my respects to Kim and Khoa and Bronnie and Kelly”, and to show that Australians have a sense of compassion and mateship.
“Australians have put their hearts on their sleeves as people of conscience,” she said.
Reta Kaur, an ethnic Indian who came to Australia from Malaysia, said she was there to protest against state-sanctioned violence and said Singapore was “a city of stone with hearts of stone”.
Polish migrant Stan, who did not wish to give his surname, said, “He was a young man, and he made a mistake, of course, but it’s too strong a punishment. There are people who smuggle tonnes of heroin and are never punished for it.”
It is probably fair to say that Melbourne has not seen this kind of mobilisation against the death penalty since the demonstrations against the hanging of Ronald Ryan, which took place in 1967. Ryan’s funeral, though, did not allow for public rallying; he was buried in unconsecrated ground near the Pentridge Prison hospital with a brief 10 minutes of prayers. The only mourners present were his priest and his jailers. Like Ned Kelly – the other son of this state who is famous for finishing his life on the gallows – Ryan was Catholic.
In a strange twist, so was Nguyen. His family are Buddhist and they attended a Buddhist service for him in Springvale on Tuesday night. But Nguyen had converted to Catholicism on death row in Changi prison, and he was farewelled yesterday with all the pomp of an establishment Catholic: one cathedral named for the patron saint of Ireland, 23 priests dressed in the white robes Nguyen had requested, and even a bishop, Mark Coleridge.
The death notices and the order of service for his funeral listed Nguyen’s first name as Caleb, the name he took for himself when he was baptised. It means bold and courageous, Father Peter Hansen told the congregation.
Nguyen had been “the baby on death row”, his friend Kelly Ng told the congregation.
Lex Lasry, Nguyen’s QC, said Nguyen had changed enormously in the time he faced death. “He was no martyr. He was no hero . . . But in the last two years, selfishness gave way to selflessness, lies gave way to truth and indulgence gave way to spirituality, and anyone watching that couldn’t help but be moved by it.”
Kim Nguyen dabbed her eyes with tissues through most of the service. Mr Lasry’s wife, Elizabeth, sat beside her, stroking her arm or shoulders in comfort. When it came time for the unfamiliar prayers, Mrs Nguyen held her hands in prayer position and bowed her head, accepting whatever it was that this culture and religion were offering her.
In the same procession, a man with an Irish face struggled to keep his lower lip from trembling. A Mediterranean grandmother bent to kiss the coffin, wiping away a tear. An Indian man came up to accept a blessing.
Nguyen’s death has done more than unite many Australians against the death penalty. It united them in their sense of what it is to be Australian.
Applause for man ‘dear tomany’ NEWS 2
OPINION Chris Ellison NEWS 15
ONLINE Watch video footage from the funeral service at theage.com.au

First published in The Age.

Ending the affair WOMEN AND GAMBLING

GABRIELA Byrne remembers first hearing about Jie Yu, the mother whose toddler died after being left in a hot car while she played the pokies. Byrne shivered to think that it could have been her. Even more painfully, “When my daughter heard it, she said, `It could have been me.”‘

Byrne used to be a problem gambler. For four years from 1992, nothing else mattered to her when the urge hit. “I picked up my kids one day; my son was at preschool and my daughter in the first year of school. It was a hot day. I had this voice saying to me, `Oh my God, today you can’t gamble,’ because my husband was interstate at work and I had the kids. And then this voice said, `But you need to go, just for five minutes.”‘

Byrne left her children in a car across the road while she played the pokies at a local hotel. She was gone only 20minutes, “probably because I ran out of money.

“But it doesn’t take 20minutes for a child to get out of the car and run across a busy street and get hit. (Another gambler I know) put her son to bed, he was three at the time, and she left him to play the pokies. When she came back at 11.30 or 12 a neighbor had him because he had been running out on the street screaming for his mum.”

News of the death of Jie Yu’s son, toddler Brian Yao, in February last year was splashed across newspapers and television reports. Even Prime Minister John Howard felt impelled to comment on the tragedy. A Supreme Court jury recently convicted Yu of manslaughter and she is awaiting sentence.

But while Brian Yao’s fate seemed extraordinary, the circumstances that led to it are frighteningly common. Researchers have known for years that women who become “hooked” on pokie machines lose their sense of time while they are playing and become oblivious to the demands of normal life.

“I think there’s the potential for it to occur again,” says Julie Nelson, coordinator of Gamblers Help Northern, of Brian’s death. Nelson says more than 50,000Victorian women are now “addicted” to poker machines, and women make up 52per cent of problem gamblers calling Gamblers Help. The Productivity Commission has estimated that 1.1per cent of the population has severe gambling problems, and 2.3per cent have serious problems.

Women who are compulsive pokie players commonly feel the sense of timelessness and tuning out from the normal world that Yu experienced during the two-and-a-half hours that proved fatal for her son, according to Victorian Government research.

Playing for Time, a study by the Department of Human Services into the impacts of gambling on women, says: “Many women have reasons to be attracted to the sense of timelessness, ritual or even distortion of thinking that may arise during long episodes of play. It gives an opportunity for respite, a chance to change `the present’ by replacing it with oblivion.”

Says Nelson: “The product has a very mind-deadening effect; you can switch off totally, you can absorb yourself in the flashing lights and the continuous play.”

The effect is so intense that in problem gamblers it can interfere with otherwise powerful parenting instincts, says Helen Carrig, manager of Relationship Australia’s South Australian problem gambling service. “Women, in particular, are programmed to look after children, so when a mother forgets her child or puts gambling ahead of her priorities in terms of purchasing for the household, that tells you something very serious is going on for her.”

This is not news that all politicians have been keen to disseminate. The Playing for Time report was gagged for two years by the previous Kennett government, according to one of its contributors, Ainslie Hannan. Hannan, who is also chairwoman of Women’s Health in the North, says: “They wouldn’t let the research be launched. It was completed in 1998 but was finally launched in March, 2000, by (Labor minister) Christine Campbell.” Playing for Time found that women gamble for many reasons: loneliness, boredom, anxiety, depression; to escape the relentless demands of family, or because they have financial or relationship problems. Many women who start as “normal” social gamblers develop a problem with it if there is a big change in their lives: if they lose a job or a partner, if children arrive or leave home, or if they experience some kind of tragedy. Psychiatry labels problem gambling an “impulse control disorder”.

There are similarities between men and women with gambling problems but they tend to gamble for different reasons, says Nelson. “We see more men gambling for a competitive edge, whereas women are more likely to be filling in time or to relieve their mind of pressure… using it for emotional pain relief.”

Once an obsession with poker machines develops, it has all the hallmarks of an affair, says Helen Carrig. “They no longer think about their partner; they think about the machine. The effect on relationships is exactly like having an affair: there is deceit, preoccupation, and time and money spent away from the partner and the relationship.”

Byrne, who now counsels problem gamblers, agrees. “I always refer to my time as a poker machine addict as my hot passionate love affair with George (as in Tattersall). It had a lot of characteristics of an affair; the lying, the cheating, the putting of a lot of your needs or wishes on to something or someone else. You lose all sense when you have an affair like this.”

For some women, the relationship with poker machines mirrors the dynamics of an empty or abusive relationship they have in real life, says Jeanette Wentzel, a counsellor with Gamblers Help Eastern. “It’s like another person they have to feed and cosset and give something to, another thing making demands on them.”
Byrne says problem players experience adrenalin highs while playing, followed by depressive lows that send them back to the pokies for another lift. Kate Earle, a psychologist and researcher, says tense people use the pokies as a tranquilliser and flat people use them as a stimulant. “It’s an avoidance mechanism for a lot of people. We can only stand so much reality,” she says.

This leads to the question raised by the gambling industry before a recent Productivity Commission inquiry. Industry representatives argued that problem gambling was the result of people with problems who gambled, rather than something that was caused by gambling.

But the commission concluded that, for many gamblers, pre-existing problems do not appear to trigger problem gambling. It also said scientists have been unable to identify an “addictive personality”. “While some factors may predispose a person to gambling, there is little evidence that problem gamblers share common personality traits, which suggests, in turn, that anyone can, in the right circumstances, become a problem gambler,” it found.

Women seem particularly vulnerable to poker machines. “Men certainly haven’t taken to poker machines in the same way or so rapidly,” says Alun Jackson, professor of social work at Melbourne University.

Research suggests this is partly because there are few recreational spaces in which lonely or isolated women feel as welcome, comfortable, anonymous and safe as they do at pokie venues – and such venues are now common in many suburbs, sharing the same areas women have always frequented for shopping. The gaming venue where Brian Yao died is next to a supermarket.

“Women describe (pokie playing) as one of the few times that people don’t ask them who they are. People who look different aren’t questioned,” Hannan says. “Women also feel that (gambling) is one of the few things in their life that’s just for them, and with that comes a sense of freedom and a sense of false control.”
Sometimes, there are few recreational alternatives. “Take Sunbury,” says Nelson. “It’s a commuter suburb. Partners are at work from 7am and don’t get home till 7pm, and that’s a big day for women to fill. But nearly every community venue, such as the bowling club, has gaming machines. There are five main community meeting places and they all have gaming machines.”

And sometimes women are directly targeted in marketing campaigns. Byrne says: “I know of a pub in Oakleigh that for a while, until we sent a TV crew there, was giving women vouchers for milk and ironing. If you go there and spend $20 you get half an hour’s ironing from somebody. They are especially targeting women and social security (recipients).”

Compulsive gamblers and their counsellors have suggested a range of measures to ease the problem. They include interruptions to play and reminders to players about how much time has passed and how much money has been lost; education programs, including warnings in venues about the possibility of “addiction”; and alternative avenues for play, recreation and creativity for women.

Byrne is now cured of her gambling obsession, to the point where she can go into pokies venues without feeling tempted to play. “It’s like it is with an old passionate love affair. If you run into an old flame, the one you thought you could not live without, you look at him and you think, `God, what on earth did I ever see in him.”‘ Her voice is suddenly joyous: “It’s not me any more. I don’t know what I ever saw in it.”

But she knows that she can never replace what she gambled away. Byrne lost a job and many friendships – and came close to losing her marriage – before she was able to break her addiction. “My daughter and my son are very educated about this; I think we have a very, very close relationship. But I missed four years of their growing up. And that’s something nobody can give you back, even God.”

The personal costs

* Problem gambling causes 29,000 divorces or separations each year.

* One in 10 problem gamblers contemplates suicide and up to 420 suicides a year can be attributed to gambling. Each year 49,000 people suffer depression “often to always” as a result of their problem gambling.

* Problem gamblers each lose an average of $12,000 a year; their total losses are $3 billion a year, making them one-third of the gambling industry’s market.

* For every problem gambler there is, on average, one associated child living in the same household.

* American research has found that children of problem gamblers are more likely to be depressed, drop out of school, smoke, drink, take drugs, and gamble.

Source: Productivity Commission

Also see Gambling with Life and Ending The Affair

First published in The Age.

A gamble with life

Jie Hua Yu looked blank when the police first asked her about playing the pokies. “Pokies?” she asked, in her uncertain English. “What – what do you mean?” It seemed she had been in Australia long enough to have discovered this consolation of the lonely, but not long enough to know its name in the local lingo.

It was midnight in a homicide squad interview room. Yu hadn’t slept for 36 hours. She was there because her son, 19-month-old Brian Yao, was in intensive care. The previous day, February 16, 2000, she had left him in a hot car for two-and-a-half hours while she played poker machines at a local hotel.

On the police video tape of that interview, played in court last week, Yu looked weary but relaxed. She even laughed a couple of times. It was if she didn’t yet understand the gravity of the situation: her son’s, or her own.

On February 22 last year, five days after that interview, doctors at the Royal Children’s Hospital pronounced Brian dead. Yu was charged with having killed him.

It seemed to be a different woman who appeared on a charge of manslaughter in the Supreme Court dock last week. This woman wept; not noisily, but often. Whenever the events surrounding her child’s death were raised, she cried, her face crumpling like a child’s. Then she would rub at her eyes with a handkerchief, fiercely, as if trying to scour away the grief.

The gambling problem that was to take her son’s life began long before he was born, a psychiatrist told the court. Yu, now 40, arrived in Australia from China in 1988 and married her husband, waiter Benny Yao, the following year. The psychiatrist said her “very significant” gambling difficulties began after she left work to have children.

The eldest of her three children was seven when Brian died; the youngest, three months.

Ruth Vine, deputy chief psychiatrist for the state of Victoria, said: “There was certainly an element of loneliness and lack of socialisation in Mrs Yu’s life, in that she had very little contact with non-Chinese-speaking people, particularly following the birth of her children and her removal from the workforce … the setting in which this initiated.”

The doctor said Yu was an intelligent woman whose problem had reached the point where she was almost constantly preoccupied by the thought of poker machines: “Although she probably only actually attended such venues two or three times a week, nonetheless the thought and the preoccupation, and a sense of anxiety and guilt and apprehension, was with her on a far more frequent basis.”
Dr Vine said problem gambling was classified medically as an impulse-control disorder, such as shoplifting. People suffering from it used gambling “as self-treatment for depression, looking for excitement, to calm down – it has all sorts of different (causes)”.

(For legal reasons, Dr Vine’s evidence was ruled not relevant and was not presented to the jury. The comments reported here relate to a voir dire examination before the judge, the purpose of which was to help determine the legal relevance of her medical evidence as to Yu’s state of mind.)

Dr Vine said Yu’s husband had become concerned about her gambling to the point where he had got rid of her Visa card.

That fateful Wednesday morning, Benny Yao was asleep after having finished work at 2am. Jie Yu got up about seven, fed Brian and his school-aged brother, and pottered about until it was time to drop her older son at school.

Then she returned home to get money for shopping. She entered the house briefly and took $150. When she returned to the car, Brian was asleep. So she decided instead to go to the Ferntree Gully hotel, which has 90 gaming machines.

“I was going to go in there for 20 to 30 minutes,” she told police through an interpreter. “… I thought, `I will just play for a while and if I can win $8 or $10 or something, then I can shop for more things’.”

She parked her red Toyota Camry in an area of the car park that had no shade and wound up the windows so Brian would not be abducted. She left him asleep, in his polycotton pyjamas, strapped into his child harness.

Inside, she “did one round” to see which machine was “good”. “Then I played with one machine for some time and then I didn’t win and then … I go and do the same thing with the other one.” She sometimes looked through a window to check the car, “but I didn’t go into the car to check … I thought that I was lucky and he was still asleep”.

In fact, Brian was developing heatstroke, a condition to which children are far more vulnerable than adults. Children’s bodies are not as effective at regulating their temperature and they have a higher metabolic rate. And small children, as the prosecutor pointed out, cannot remove themselves from safety harnesses or locked cars.

Scientists later determined from tests that if the temperature outside is 24.7, the car’s interior will be 35.1 degrees; and if it is 28.8 outside, the inside can reach 59 degrees. But Yu was inside in air-conditioning, unaware of the rising temperature or even the passage of time. Dr Vine said: “Mrs Yu described a state of mind at that time that is very common in persons who have a preoccupation with gambling in that she was entirely – entirely – focused on the activity at hand … and I think it’s recognised that the (environment) in which many poker machines are kept tends to be one where there is an encouragement for that focus to develop …

“I am not going to say she had an altered state of consciousness, but an extremely focused attention that was only cognisant, really, of the machine in front of her.”
To that extent, the doctor said, she was “unaware of her son or the car or the day”.

Reality returned with the arrival some time after 11.30am of her husband. Hotel staff saw him talking to her angrily in the foyer. A gaming-room attendant, Val Miles, told the court Yu was “certainly cowering” as her husband upbraided her. Yu later told police through an interpreter: “He said that I was having fun by myself and leaving our son in the car.” Yu said she thought she had been in the gaming room for only 20 or 30 minutes.

Mrs Miles said she watched the couple leave. When they reached the car, “the gentleman hit the lady across the head. They seemed still to be arguing”.

When the parents found the child unconscious, they took him straight to the local Angliss Hospital. Doctors said he was cyanosed (blue) and convulsing, with a dangerously high temperature of 42.3 degrees (a normal temperature is between 36 and 37.5 degrees).

Pathologist Matthew Lynch, who performed the autopsy on Brian, said: “(Heatstroke) is the end stage of the temperature going up and the body losing the capacity to bring it down. When it gets to that end point, most of the important systems of the body start to malfunction.” Dr Lynch said this involved severe brain injury as well as problems with the heart, lungs and kidneys. “And these problems will compound each other. The situation often just gets worse and worse.”

In his summing up, the prosecutor, Paul Coghlan, QC, built a quiet but inexorable case against Yu. He pointed out that love and negligence are not mutually exclusive; that negligence arises because we have a duty of care to others; and that the duty of care of a parent for a small child is one of the greatest. He said that Brian’s death was an inevitable and foreseeable consequence of his mother’s conscious actions, and that two-and-half hours was an inexcusable length of time to have left him in the car. He asked the jury to set a community standard on the issue.

He spoke soberly, without aggression. “There’s no joy in this case. There’s no joy for me as a prosecutor, no joy to say that this is a case in relation to which a determination has to made about a mother in these circumstances. (But) it’s about the enforcement of law as we understand it in this community.”

The defence counsel, Brian Bourke, appealed for the jury’s sympathy with Rumpolesque eloquence. He quoted at length the British writer G.K. Chesterton on his experience as a juror, including his dismay at the way lawyers and judges and policemen lose perspective: “`This is the reason for the jury system. Strictly, they don’t see the prisoner in the dock … They only see their own workshop…”

Mr Bourke suggested it was the gambling industry that should be on trial. The jury should remember the accused as a good and caring mother, he said.

“Put yourself in her position for one minute. She will live with it to the end of her days. Regardless of what is said by this jury, what verdict you return, she will bear that, and she needs no verdict of yours to appreciate and realise the enormity of this sort of conduct.”

The jury took only two hours to find Yu guilty. She has yet to be sentenced. Justice Bernard Teague indicated that he would impose jail only if it were necessary to allow Yu to access the supportive supervision available to those on parole.

In the end, the law had viewed the child’s death with gravity and the mother’s life with compassion.

First published in The Age.

Also see The End of The Affair.

A mother is found guilty, but what to do?

The prosecutor said the case gave him no joy. The judge said he was pleased that the jury, and not he, had to make this hard call. The defence counsel said “gambling dens” were the real culprits.

And the accused stayed mute, but for her quiet weeping.

But when court adjourned after she was convicted of manslaughter, Jie Hua Yu, the mother whose toddler died of heatstroke after being left in a hot car while she played the pokies, sat sobbing, her head on her husband’s shoulder.

Her younger sister Yali, who had testified that Yu was a good and loving mother, wept in an alcove outside the courtroom.

It was the end of a long and, all parties acknowledged, tragic story.

It began on February 16 last year, when Yu, after dropping an older child at school, decided to stop off for 20 or 30 minutes’ play at a local gambling venue, the Ferntree Gully Hotel.

She left the second of her three children, 19-month-old Brian Yao, strapped in the car in an unshaded area of the hotel car park.

He was asleep, she later explained to police, and she thought she wasn’t going to be inside for long.

Two-and-a-half hours later, Yu’s husband, Benny Yao, woke at their home in Kelvin Drive, Ferntree Gully, and realised his wife and child were gone.

He arrived at the hotel looking for her. The couple found Brian unconscious and took him straight to a nearby hospital.

He arrived blue and convulsing.

Despite an emergency transfer to the Royal Children’s Hospital, he was later declared brain dead and was removed from life support on February 22.

Yu was charged with having killed him through criminal negligence.

This Supreme Court case was a quiet one. Barristers did not shout or bluster. Medical witnesses kept descriptions of distressing facts to a minimum. It was as if no one wished to add to the suffering that Yu had already endured.

Yu, a 40-year-old housewife, arrived each day dressed in unadorned suits with her face bare of makeup. She sat next to her Cantonese interpreter, her head bent to one side as she listened to the swift translation of legal exchanges. Had it not been for the misery etched on her face, they would have looked like girlfriends exchanging confidences.

Yesterday Yu’s defence counsel, Brian Burke, argued that this good and loving mother should not be branded a killer. He said her conduct did not deserve to be punished as a crime. He asked jurors to put themselves in her place.

He blamed the gambling industry for “wreaking havoc” on innocent people. “It’s a great pity it’s not the gambling dens on trial, isn’t it? They are not on trial; got the sanctity and blessing of governments from top to bottom.”

The prosecutor, Paul Coghlan, QC, told the jury that love and negligence were not mutually exclusive. He argued that leaving a small child locked in a hot car for two-and-a-half hours “so terrifically” breached Yu’s duty of care to her son that it called for the intervention of the criminal law.

“The question you will have to address is whether it can ever be said to be not unexcusable to leave a child in this sort of car, in this sort of car park, on this sort of day, for two-and-a-half hours. It’s just not on … for proper contemporary standards … Lines should be drawn.”

The jury took two hours to conclude that Mr Coghlan was right.

Justice Bernard Teague adjourned the sentence for a date to be fixed. He said he would consider punishments that did not involve prison.

First published in The Age.

Also see A Gamble With Life and Ending The Affair.

Neglect and abuse in detention

KAREN KISSANE   The nurse whose allegations sparked the furore over the Woomera Detention Centre, Barbara Rogalla, was appalled by conditions there from the day she arrived. Its razor wire and perimeter patrols reminded her of a concentration camp.

What she says she found inside the fence appalled her, too. Ms Rogalla speaks of sexual assault claims covered up, doctors pressured to avoid carrying out expensive tests on sick detainees, and suicidal people dressed in canvas shifts and locked in a bare concrete cell.

Ms Rogalla says she first took her concerns to Woomera management in June. She then complained to Australasian Correctional Management’s head office in Sydney. They referred her back to the local managers to develop a policy for dealing with suspected child abuse.

Ms Rogalla says she then contacted the department that oversees child protection in South Australia, Family and Community Services, but her calls were not returned. She spoke to police in August.

Ms Rogalla also has copies of letters she says she sent to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in September and to Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock in October. She says: “We have got to have a judicial inquiry, it’s as simple as that.”

Ms Rogalla worked at Woomera for two six-week stints this year. From January to mid-February she was a general nurse and from June to July she handled psychiatric issues.

In her second stint, a fellow nurse told her of the day in March when four guards had brought to the medical centre a 12-year-old boy. Ms Rogalla says: “He was hanging on to his bottom and he was crying … The guards said: `This boy’s been f—-d’.”

Ms Rogalla was told guards had suspected for some time the boy was being raped by his father and others men. Their response had been to “monitor” the situation.

“Had this been an Australian child, child protection would have been alerted immediately. What happened at Woomera was that the guards became determined to catch the father out and would barge into the dormitory without knocking.

“But these men knew what the guards were doing and they had their own little look-out and warned each other when the guards were approaching. (The monitoring) was all totally inappropriate. It should have been handed over in the first place to people who are skilled in this kind of investigation.”

Ms Rogalla says the nurse to whom the boy was brought was later pressured by management to water down her written account of the incident. She was discouraged from reporting it to outside authorities, and the boy was never examined.

Ms Rogalla says that, after the incident, the boy’s file disappeared for several weeks. When it reappeared, she saw it made no mention of suspected sexual assault.

Ms Rogalla later initiated an assessment of a 15-year-old boy who had psychiatric symptoms and said he was being woken at night by a man touching him. She says management sent the boy back to the same dormitory but removed the offender to a different compound.

An adult woman also reported that she had been sexually assaulted and initially refused to press charges because she feared being stoned to death by fundamentalists in the camp. “A man was later charged,” Ms Rogalla said.

The Sydney office of Australasian Correctional Management referred requests for comment to the Department of Immigration, which yesterday issued a statement saying the allegations were “just that: only allegations”, and pointed out there were now three inquiries examining different aspects of the claims. It said detainees were not kept in isolation except for health reasons or when their behavior put themselves or others at risk.

First published in The Age.

Mutilation law may do harm – expert


Outlawing female genital mutilation only drives the practice underground and could even further hurt the girls it is meant to protect, according to the president of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices, Mrs Berhane Ras-Work.

After her speech yesterday to the Women, Power and Politics conference in Adelaide, delegates will debate whether to call on federal and state governments to remove criminal sanctions from any laws drafted on the issue.

Mrs Ras-Work, an Ethiopian who represents 23 African countries in consultations with the United Nations, said she could not comment specifically on Australian moves to make mutilation illegal, but it generally caused more harm than good.

“Sudan in 1946 under the colonial regime passed such legislation. The practice went underground, people did it quietly, which meant that if the child haemorrhaged or became infected, they didn’t bring her to hospital.

“The Government should express its commitment to protecting the children, but criminalising it and throwing the mothers into jail will not help the community. What would be the damage to the child from being separated from the family?” Mrs Ras-Work said the procedure had been performed on more than 90 million women in the world today. It is becoming more common in Australia as a result of migration, and the Federal Government recently promised to outlaw it if the states could not agree on a uniform ban.

The Victorian Attorney-General, Mrs Wade, said this week that she was not opposed to such legislation, even though genital mutilation would already be an offence under the Crimes Act. Mrs Wade said she was consulting before making specific recommendations.

Genital mutilation, in which the clitoris is chopped off and/or the labia minora and parts of the labia majora sliced away and stitched over, is a traditional practice in many African and Middle Eastern countries. It can cause illness and death, long-term pain and gynaecological and obstetric problems. It diminishes or eliminates female sexual sensation.

Mrs Ras-Work, who is based in Geneva, says that governments that want to help migrant communities change their ways should use education and public information campaigns.

“(Its continued practice) is largely due to lack of knowledge about its consequences,” Mrs Ras-work said. “The mother who circumcises her daughter is not abusing her; she is doing it with the best of intentions to help her daughter to be eligible for marriage.”

First published in The Age.