House debates

Monday, 22 February 2010

Private Members’ Business

Electronic Gaming Machines

Debate resumed, on motion by Mr Champion:

That the House:

supports the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to:
lower the maximum bet limit per button push from $10.00 to $1.00 on electronic gaming machines;
lower the cash input limit on electronic gaming machines; and
implement by 2016, a universal pre commitment system for electronic gaming machines;
notes the observations of Productivity Commission Chairman Mr Gary Banks that ‘despite progress since our last report 10 years ago, there is considerably more that governments can do to make gaming machines a safer recreational pursuit.’; and
calls on State governments and the gaming industry to support the implementation of the Productivity Commission’s recommendations.

7:41 pm

Photo of Nick ChampionNick Champion (Wakefield, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I will just say that I think the member for Braddon gave a very moving speech on the previous motion and does this House proud when he shows such passion for an issue.

In addressing the issues around addiction to electronic gambling machines and what we do about it, a problem that I have talked about many times, the first place we have to start is to ask: is there a problem? There are many ways of answering that question. One place you can go is the key points of the draft report by the Productivity Commission, which talk about the numbers of gamblers, the percentages, the ratios and all the rest of it. Or you can go to some of the headlines that have been around, like the one in the Herald Sun on 26 January 2010 which reported that ‘Victorians spend $1.36 bil in six months on pokies’. Or there is the article from the Daily Mercury on 18 January 2010 titled ‘Mackay blows $60.8m on pokies’, or an article from 23 January 2010 titled ‘Wollongong’s $131m pokie habit’, or an article from the Northern Star on 22 February this year where the headline is ‘Rise in women addicted to pokies’. There are a lot of headlines, a lot of statistics and a lot of ratios which talk about the problem.

I was looking on the internet and, interestingly enough, in That’s Life, which is a popular magazine which tells people’s stories, there is an article about Pat Burns, 68, of Mitcham, Victoria. She talks about how her son died and then about how a pokies addiction developed as a result of that. There are a couple of paragraphs that I think are fitting. She says:

Sitting in front of the machine, relief washed through me. All I had to think about was hitting the buttons. Before long, I was out of money, so I went back for another $50. Then another.

Later I realised I’d put through a couple of hundred dollars. It’s just a bit of fun, I reasoned.

However, over the next few months, I found myself at the club more and more. The pokies were proving irresistible.

That’s my pay for the week gone, I thought at the ATM one night. But I dismissed it, shuffling back to my favourite machine.

Pat Burns in this article goes through her journey with poker machines. She talks about how, in the end, she wound up spending about $60,000 over five years. Eventually she sought help and got it. She talks about her struggles in beating the addiction. She says:

Over the next two years I clawed my way out of debt, scrimping and sacrificing to get back in the black. But the lure of pokies remained. Especially on the anniversaries of Darren and Mum’s deaths. But with the help of David—

her husband—

and Vera—

her counsellor—

I got through it.

We can see from these personal testimonies that often people have problems when they go into poker machine venues. Often they are dealing with grief, depression or some other issue. It starts out very innocently, as a bit of escapism through gambling on these machines, but what eventually happens is a very bad addiction for some individuals.

The commission’s recommendation, which I talk about in this motion, will undoubtedly help people. It will help people in a couple of different ways. Firstly, it will stop them losing so much money. Reducing bet limits from $10 a spin to $1 a spin will ultimately lower the amount of money that can be gambled per hour, and I think that will lower the amount of damage people can do while they are in the thrall of these machines. Likewise, I think the provision for self-exclusion through mandatory self-exclusion systems can do a great deal of help for those recovering from gambling addictions, for those people who realise they have a problem and who want to seek help. It helps them deal with the irresistible lure of these machines. I have spoken about this many times before. These machines are just so addictive. It is very hard to get off them once you are on them and it is very, very easy to develop a problem, even though that problem might be overlaid by other personal problems. I commend this motion to the House. I hope to see a positive response from the government.

7:47 pm

Photo of Andrew LamingAndrew Laming (Bowman, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Problem gambling is such a complex issue that clinicians, social workers and a number of professions have worked on it for generations now and we are no closer to a solution. In my five minutes today I want to focus on the medical and caring side of problem gambling, to look very briefly at the terms of reference and whether the Productivity Commission addressed them, and finally to make some ACT related points, because obviously we are in a territory where there is predominantly community gambling, and that gives it a very different profile to other states.

We have been working on the medical model with everything from SSRIs to opiate antagonists as medical treatments. You work your way through peer support and self-help groups and banning lists so that you do not enter areas of gambling. But still we are a long, long way from a solution. That is why the terms of reference were developed and the Productivity Commission addressed this very important issue. I want to make one very clear point, and that is that we have a range of different gambling challenges within the private betting sphere and the one that is of greatest concern to me is what is called the hyperlink machines—the multilevel jackpot systems that have multiple near miss outcomes. That is one small subcategory of betting machines that is of enormous concern to me. It has not been addressed in this report, as far as I am aware.

These machines are extremely damaging and are positively playing on some of the most addictive elements of gambling. What are those elements? They have been listed in DSM-IV. They have also been developed in a number of studies in the United States, but in essence it is the preoccupation and the thoughts about gambling that never go away. It is the fact that through tolerance—or toleration, as the Americans say—more and more gambling is needed to obtain the same rush. It is the irritability and the withdrawals, the sense that without gambling life is not complete. It is the need for escape, where the subject gambles to get away from the troubles of the day. It is chasing, where once one loses one feels the need to bet again to win those losses back. It is lying to hide the extent of one’s gambling. It is a loss of control where you unsuccessfully attempt to reduce gambling, and then of course there are illegal acts where one will actually break the law to obtain the money to gamble. It is the loss of and risking of significant relationships with family and those to whom you are close, be it relationships, jobs or other connections. Finally, there is the bailout, where you turn to family and friends for help. Effectively, have five out of 10 of those and you are a problem gambler.

Just to take a snapshot in the ACT, around $170 million is turned over every year in gambling. It is important to say that it is all community gambling here in the ACT. There are no private establishments like pubs that allow gambling. In those 5,200 machines we have about the lowest machine take of any state or territory at around $35,000 per machine. I think those who are operating in the ACT would be at pains to say that, as much of that money goes back into the community, we need to find a very, very careful balance between that money going back to the community and setting up enormously expensive transitionals such as trying to change hardware or even reprogram machines at mind-numbing cost to do something as simple as changing the maximum bet limit. Such button changes would be extraordinarily expensive to undertake. The turnover of the machines is, I think, in the order of every eight to 10 years, so the clubs certainly cannot wait for new machines to be installed. That is of concern to those who are operating community gambling establishments in the ACT.

The money does some really important things around the community, and we tend to forget that. We do not want to see a system where we have completely impotent increases in signs in establishments where it turns into something like Parramatta Road, and you end up ignoring all of the signs. In the end one element has to be small, affordable changes with the technology itself—and I have named one, the hyperlink machines. I know there is one company that holds the patent for them and it would be very, very disturbed to have that subcategory of machine banned. However, were that to be done, you would be addressing potentially 70 to 80 per cent of problem gambling because it is that machine category that is most damaging to problem gamblers. Another point to make is that community gambling is far less aggressively marketed than private gambling, from which every additional dollar gambled goes to the establishment. That is a far cry from community gambling.

In summary, we are hitting as hard as we can on medical solutions. We are looking at community support for problem gamblers. We know in the end that, no matter what card or identification system is introduced, problem gamblers will go to extraordinary steps to bypass them. I support some of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission but acknowledge that the one I support most strongly, which is the most damaging of all, is the recommendation for hyperlink machines. They should be the focus of this reform.

7:52 pm

Photo of Chris HayesChris Hayes (Werriwa, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Wakefield for bringing this matter before us. Last year, I spoke about the Wests Leagues Club, of which I am the patron, which contributes in excess of $1 million annually into sport for the local community. In addition to that they have provided financial assistance to more than 100 hundred local athletes so that they could compete in various state, national and international events. That is just one club supporting junior sport across the south-west of Sydney.

Today I rise again to speak in relation to some of the positive aspects of clubs and what they contribute to the community. Clearly this contribution is support that they provide through a consequence of their revenue stream. Also, I acknowledge that gambling is one of those streams. In New South Wales, particularly in areas with a high concentration of families, we have seen the development of clubs in our communities and we know that they provide a range of services to the community. They are extremely popular with locals because they provide quality and affordable services at a community based level.

From my experience the clubs in my region are not typical venues, they are community hubs. In fact, I am advised that 96 per cent of clubs in New South Wales provide and maintain sporting facilities such as golf courses, bowls and sporting fields, gyms, swimming pools, et cetera. Clubs across New South Wales pay for football jerseys, subsidise player insurance, provide volunteers for coaching, provide referees’ fees, contribute buses and drivers and also provide a safe venue for people to meet and socialise. It should be said that, without this assistance from clubs, many of these services simply would not be provided in our communities. I have seen firsthand the support and assistance provided by the clubs in my region, which has allowed a lot of kids to participate in team events, and the same clubs continue to contribute millions of dollars each year to vital community services, seniors groups, community facilities, schools and charitable organisations.

I would like to make it very clear at this point that, whilst I have focused on the positive impact that clubs have in our communities, I understand that gambling excessively causes havoc to a person’s life and certainly to the social, emotional and financial aspects. Ultimately this problem may lead to the loss of relationships, homes, health and careers, may cause depression and stress, and very much be the ruination of a person’s life.

However, not everyone who gambles is a problem gambler. In the main, people should be free to choose for themselves whether they want to play gaming machines or not. But it must be said that problem gambling is a major health issue in Australia, and for that reason we certainly need policies that strike a balance between the sizeable benefits that accrue from recreational gambling and the significant harm that it causes some people and their families. Gambling is therefore an important issue for the community, and the government must consider both its positive and negative impacts when identifying and developing community outcomes and producing long-term community plans.

I note that this motion refers to one of the 40-plus draft recommendations of the Productivity Commission, and that is to lower the maximum bet on gaming machines from $10 to $1. I understand that the Productivity Commission has suggested that in its draft report of October 2009 that a number of its recommendations should be subject to further research and not be immediately implemented. I understand that this is because there is no guarantee that the commission’s proposals would actually reduce problem gambling and they accept that a disturbance of the revenue base would have a significant consequential effect on the ability of clubs to provide various community services. But we must remember that one of the functions of government is to make decisions that set the direction for promoting the social, cultural, environmental and economic wellbeing of our communities. Therefore, we must develop healthy policies in relation to gambling harm minimisation.

It is also important that we appreciate that the clubs in New South Wales provide 10,000 jobs. In my own region, at last count, I think there were a tad over 3,000 people employed in these clubs. Those jobs go to supporting local families. Clearly, the draft recommendations of the Productivity Commission to lower bets and to commit to a system that would require people to precommit their bets will be effective measures but they will require a greater degree of investment and also research into their implications for staff. We must strike a proper balance, and we must acknowledge what clubs contribute to our community. (Time expired)

7:57 pm

Photo of Luke SimpkinsLuke Simpkins (Cowan, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I thank the member for Wakefield for bringing this motion before the chamber. It is at least the second motion that he has brought forward on gambling. I also recall that I had an opportunity to speak before on this matter.

I do not understand these sorts of addictions. I saw this problem during a rare walk through Crown Casino in Melbourne when I was there several years ago. I saw it at certain licensed clubs within New South Wales when I was on rowing trips many aeons ago. I also saw it during a visit to Wrest Point Hotel Casino when I was in the Army, back in 1990. I felt dreadful when I lost $20, and I realised then that I did not have a problem with gambling. But you see people who seem to spend a lot of time locked to their favourite machine and also a lot of money going into those things. I appreciate what is going on. I appreciate the member for Wakefield’s pursuit of this issue. A lot of people clearly cannot help themselves, and I think that is a tragedy.

I recall one day—and this is not specifically about poker machines—talking to a local newsagent in the electorate of Cowan. He told me about a time when the lotto bonus was $30 million and a number of people came into the newsagency, paid off their minimum loan repayment to Dun and Bradstreet through the newsagent but saved the majority of their money to buy lotto tickets.


This is one of the problems to do with gambling: that some people out there who, for whatever reason, have such a sense of hopelessness in their lives that they feel that it is only through luck—the pursuit of the life-changing gambling win—that the circumstances of their adversity can be alleviated. Maybe that is something to do with what is going on in the casinos and licensed clubs around the country where people plough in many dollar coins. They are significant dollars by the time you roll them all in together. It is a terrible thing that people surrender themselves to luck. I think we here would all agree, those of us who have worked hard to get to this place, that destiny, if anything, is in the palms of our hands and is generated by hard work. It is a tragedy that there are people out there who feel that is not the way to go—that they must rely on risking their future by ploughing coins into a machine or by some other form of gambling. As a member from Western Australia, I say that it is a great thing that we have these gaming machines restricted to the casino at Burswood. It is not ingrained into our society as much as it is elsewhere, as we heard from the member for Werriwa.

I struggle to understand how this is a recreational pursuit. It does not seem interesting to me to sit in front of a machine and hear it whirr and crank; to hear the bells and whistles going off. It is not that interesting to me but the reality is that there are a lot of people who do not have a gambling problem but think that is recreation. Provided they can live within their limits we should not be trying to restrict them. I endorse the member for Wakefield’s position on this motion. If you are happy to sit in front of a machine, and that is the right of every Australian citizen, then you can surely get entertainment out of pushing a button where it does not cost you $10 a time. I think it is a tragedy that people are addicted and we can at least make some small moves to limit the damage for those who do have a problem.

Photo of Dick AdamsDick Adams (Lyons, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Order! The time allocated for the debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.