House debates

Tuesday, 27 November 2012


National Gambling Reform Bill 2012, National Gambling Reform (Related Matters) Bill (No. 1) 2012, National Gambling Reform (Related Matters) Bill (No. 2) 2012; Second Reading

8:40 pm

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to speak on the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012. Can I say that, from the outset, the coalition acknowledges that gambling is a major problem for some Australians, and that is why we on this side of the House support measures that will effectively tackle problem gambling and help to address and prevent gambling addiction. But any response to gambling problems must recognise that many Australians gamble responsibly. Indeed, the majority of Australians who have a gamble—whether they gamble on the poker machines or go to a casino or a club or have a wager at the races—gamble responsibly. In addition to that, many Australians also rely on the sector for their jobs.

Let me make it entirely clear that the coalition supports voluntary precommitment, as do all the states in Australia. Labor's approach depends on who they have done a political deal with and, it seems like, on the day of the week. The government's proposed legislative package has a sordid history. It had its origins in the political deal the Prime Minister did with the member for Denison to keep the keys to the Lodge; then there was the betrayal of the member for Denison and now the usual capitulation by the once-proud Labor Party to the Greens. We have seen it all before and, unfortunately for the Australian people, we are seeing it again tonight.

The coalition is deeply concerned about the lack of time the government has permitted for proper consultation and review of this legislation. We are concerned because we have seen before the damage that is caused by rushed legislation, the messes left in the wake of ramming bills through the parliament and the inevitable need to go back and fix the problems the government itself created.

Above all else, we add our voice to the calls of many others that legislation of such alleged significance for addressing gambling problems in our communities deserves much greater scrutiny and community consultation. That is why we believe that a more thorough inquiry should have been undertaken, and that is why we have tried in the other place, in the Senate, to have this bill referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration.

The reality is that despite all of the complexity, and despite the clear fact that the states and territories will be compelled to play a key role in this new duplication of regulation, the government has steamrolled ahead with no consultation with the other sectors of government. Of even more concern is the fact that the government has wilfully ignored all the warnings from the agencies and organisations who are the experts in this area.

As to the industry itself, the thousands of business owners and clubs involved in the hospitality sector have not only been ignored; they have been entirely locked out. There can be no clearer example of just what lengths this government will go to in order to cling to political survival and their Green lifeline.

These bills would see a further extension of Commonwealth influence over state and territory jurisdictions. Gambling within Australia, for the past century, has always constitutionally been within state responsibilities. We truly believe that merely creating regulatory duplication and legislating in an area that falls within state responsibilities will do nothing to help problem gamblers.

The government has also sought to gloss over what will be a significant impost on clubs and pubs throughout Australia—that is, the cost of the implementation of this legislation. For the smaller venues in rural and regional Australia—areas the Labor government would know nothing about, given that they do not seem to represent any of them—these new laws will have a direct impact on financial viability and, in turn, on employment in many parts of Australia. Manufacturers and operators of machines have also warned of the dangers of widespread noncompliance and about the fact that the government's own time frames are quite simply unachievable.

To give an example of this, we have had promises and indications that there would be a trial in the ACT. From the very outset, the trial in the ACT has been problematic. Why? First of all, it was because the clubs in the ACT had not signed up to the trial. They had not signed up to the trial because the government had not come to the party in terms of actually providing the detail about what that trial would involve.

Mr Pyne interjecting

In addition to that—and I appreciate the member for Hindmarsh—

Photo of Christopher PyneChristopher Pyne (Sturt, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

Member for Sturt!

Photo of Kevin AndrewsKevin Andrews (Menzies, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Families, Housing and Human Services) Share this | | Hansard source

Sorry, the member for Sturt. I appreciate his rapt attention to my remarks tonight. Regarding the trial in the ACT, if I can come back to the subject, the ACT industry has been warning for months that this was simply unachievable in the time frame that was being proposed by the government. Not only had the compensation arrangements not been determined by the government, the scope of the trial in terms of whether or not clubs just over the border from the ACT—in Queanbeyan—were going to be involved in the trial or not had not been determined. None of that had been determined, yet the government was blithely pushing ahead with the view that this trial could occur in the time frame proposed.

Yet the industry, the people who were the manufacturers and the people who were responsible for modifying the gambling machines in order for a trial to take place, had been saying to us from at least February of this year that the time frame was totally unrealistic and totally unachievable. This is a government that said, 'We are going to do this.' But in fact the reality is that the implementation was certainly unachievable. That has been the so-called mandatory precommitment trial in the ACT. It has been a case of wishful thinking at best on the part of the government and something that has simply been unable to be delivered.

Over the past year, I have travelled around Australia; I have visited some of the many thousands of clubs around our great nation. I have visited clubs that form local hubs and community hubs and that are run for the benefit of the community. Whether they are a sporting club, a local community club or a surf lifesaving club, they fund important programs, important activities, local sports and youth events. They fund community initiatives and they provide critical philanthropic support to causes that we know all too well.

So my message to the Labor Party is to stop fighting the ideological battles of the Greens and to stop attacking the grassroots organisations that actually do good in our community. Where are these organisations? Many of these organisations and clubs can be found in the western suburbs of Sydney, traditional areas of Labor support. They can be found on the North Coast, the mid-coast and the South Coast of New South Wales, which are traditional areas of Labor support. They can be found in the outer suburban areas and the regional areas of Queensland, which are traditional areas of Labor support. Yet this is a party so driven by the Greens that they are implementing legislation that the Greens want, rather than respecting the wishes, the desires and the contributions of their local communities that have traditionally been supporters of the Labor Party throughout Australia.

Labor's obsession with mandatory precommitment means that, if given the opportunity, they could flick the switch and turn it on when this bill is meant to be about voluntary precommitment. You have to ask the question: why is the Commonwealth parliament introducing a bill for voluntary precommitment in the states and territories of Australia? A number of questions come to mind. Firstly, isn't this an area of state and territory regulation? Don't the states and the territories license clubs and poker machines in Australia? Does the Constitution provide, in section 51, for the Commonwealth regulation of this area? The answer is a resounding no. If there is any area that is clearly a state and territory responsibility it is this. So why is the Commonwealth interfering in this area?

But, then, you should ask the question every time, 'Is legislation necessary?' The states and the territories are all moving towards implementing schemes of voluntary precommitment. The industry itself is committed to voluntary precommitment. The very object of this bill, the very purpose of this legislation—namely, to introduce voluntary precommitment—is already the subject of the proposals and the movement in the states, the territories and the industry itself. So why do we need the Commonwealth, in an area which is not its legislative responsibility and is not its constitutional domain, to move into voluntary precommitment when the states, the territories and industry are doing it? It is a good question.

If legislation is being proposed, there should be this threshold test: why do we need this legislation? I can understand the argument from a Commonwealth perspective that we should introduce legislation if the states are failing to do it, but this is not the case. The states are doing it and the industry is doing it. So why do we need this? The answer is quite obvious: this is a political deal with the Greens in order to continue to prop up a minority government that has always relied, from day one, on a number of members sitting over there on the crossbench. It relied on Andrew Wilkie, the member for Denison, who did a deal with this government, with the Prime Minister who stands at this dispatch box every day, in order to prop up her place in the Lodge after the last election. As soon as she thought she did not need Andrew Wilkie, the member for Denison, to prop up that arrangement she cut him loose. I have to say to the member for Denison: where is the honour? Where is the purpose in what you are supporting here when she cut you loose, and now what are you doing? Scrambling to make a position that even the Prime Minister herself does not believe.

The reality is that tackling gambling requires a measured response that does not just look at poker machines, like this legislation, but tackles the underlying problem of gambling addiction throughout this nation. Fundamentally, problem gambling can only be tackled by providing problem gamblers with counselling and support services. The coalition is committed to addressing problem gambling, but Labor seems to be obsessed with fighting ideological battles on behalf of the Greens, who continue to prop them up in government. Duplicating regulation and legislating within state and territory responsibilities does nothing to help problem gamblers, and that is why the coalition will oppose this bill.

8:53 pm

Photo of Andrew LeighAndrew Leigh (Fraser, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

May I start with a story from an email sent to me by one of my constituents, Gary Hatcliffe. He wrote to me as follows:

My name is Gary Hatcliffe. The pokies have taken away the past 25 years of living for me. Some would say I had a choice; unfortunately, the addiction overpowered my logical thought processes. As a result, I have just completed 7 months of live-in rehabilitation and I now reside in a half-way house in Canberra. Eight months ago I was destitute in Melbourne (having hit rock bottom once again) and I was going to kill myself.

I have, only just this weekend, opened up the third meeting of Gamblers Anonymous in Canberra.

He finishes up his email:

PLEASE KEEP UP YOUR GOOD WORK FOR POKIE REFORM. MY LIFE WILL FOREVER BE AT RISK UNTIL MY ACCESS IS TAKEN AWAY FROM ME. I envisage, down the track with the mandatory pre-commitment and a nationally regulated card system, to be able to ban myself from using any machine in Australia. This will allow me to still be social and go into a club with friends, have a meal and a couple of drinks, and know that I cannot use the pokies because I will not have access to a 'pokie' card.

Warm regards,

Gary Hatcliffe.

Mr Hatcliffe's story is sadly all too common across Australia. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald last year noted the phenomenon in St Johns Park Bowling Club where at 2.30 on a Sunday morning the club starts handing out $100 notes. In order to win those $100 notes gamblers need to swipe their membership cards at a reward centre and wait. The article went on to talk about other incidents and other factors that ensure that gamblers are unable to take themselves out of the zone and stop and reflect on how much they have spent and decide whether they want to stop playing. It pointed out that the machines in St Johns have an attendant button—a sort of room service so pokie players do not have to leave their machines to get a drink. The practice is banned in Victoria but popular in New South Wales.

The article tells the story of a tense Fijian woman, aged about 70, who tells the journalist:

"I've lost $400 tonight,'' she says, snorting involuntarily each time she smacks the machine and chases her losses. ''I lost $3000,'' she adds, snorting again, before locking eyes back on the spinning reels, too distracted to explain.

A counsellor by the name of Wendy, who works with problem gamblers in that part of Australia, says:

Once they are on that machine, the world could blow up around them, and they really wouldn't notice.

She goes on to say:

Often people will say to me: 'I looked up and, oh my God, I've been there for five hours. I didn't eat anything, I didn't drink anything, I didn't go to the toilet.'

And then I will ask them how much money did they put into the machine and they'll go: 'I don't know, I was just feeding it money.'

A player named Yvonne, from Wentworthville, says:

Your mind stops, you don't think.

The article finishes up with the story of Toai Thi Nguyen, an illiterate 55-year-old Vietnamese mother of four, who racked up debts of $28,000 to loan sharks through her gambling and found herself eventually succumbing to the threats of the loan sharks. She flew to Vietnam, where a gun was held to her head. She returned with 10 kilograms of pseudoephedrine, used for making ice, and was intercepted by Customs. She is now serving five years in jail for this.

A Parliamentary Library FlagPost article by Amanda Biggs noted that the prevalence of problem gambling is highest in low socioeconomic areas of Australia. It noted, for example, that in Greater Dandenong the average weekly income is $426 and pokie losses are $1,110 per adult. By contrast, Boroondara has an average income of $836 a week and average losses of $153 an adult. So this is very much a social justice issue. This is an issue where those of us who care about the most disadvantaged in Australia are compelled to act.

I found it surprising that the member for Menzies was saying that it is not appropriate for the federal government to step in here, that this is an area where we ought to respect states' rights—whatever that means. As a representative of the ACT, I could not help thinking: is this the same member for Menzies who introduced a private member's bill to override the rights of the territories on the issue of euthanasia? I think it might be. I think it might be the very same member for Menzies. So, when it suits him, he is happy to come into this place and use federal authority to override other jurisdictions, but, on an issue that he does not think is appropriate, he will not do that.

I think in this case it is appropriate to have a national approach. It is a national approach that is grounded in behavioural economics. The great thing about precommitment is that no-one is forced to do anything. You are simply asked to set your limit. That limit that you set can be as high or as low as you want it to be. All we are doing with mandatory precommitment is allowing people to keep the promises that they make to themselves. We are allowing people to set a limit and to have the club assist them in sticking to that limit. We know—as the stories I read out this evening illustrated so powerfully—that people get in the zone. They walk into a club or pub intending to spend no more than $200, and they walk out scratching their head wondering where the $500 went. They chase their losses. They lose track of time. They lose perspective on how much they are willing to gamble. All mandatory precommitment does is ensure that people set that number and that the clubs help them stick to it.

Here in the ACT, a trial of mandatory precommitment will be taking place. The Minister for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin, has set up a Trial Oversight Committee that includes representatives from ClubsACT, the Tradies, the ACT Council of Social Service, the ACT Club Managers Association, United Voice, the Australian Institute of Family Studies and the ACT and Australian governments. That committee has been welcomed by participants in this debate. The CEO of ClubsACT, Jeff House, has said:

Whilst there is a large body of work that needs to be completed before the trial can commence, the establishment of this Oversight Committee is a key step in the timeline which will allow us to make some initial progress on completing that body of work. I look forward to continuing to work with Minister Macklin and her department.

I commend Mr House for the constructive way in which he and his members have worked with this government. I know the same is true of ACT clubs that are outside ClubsACT. I welcome the constructive way in which the ACT Minister for Gaming and Racing, Joy Burch, has worked. She has said, for example:

A trial of mandatory precommitment in the ACT will build on the substantial reforms already underway in the ACT.

That commitment to evidence based policymaking is a hallmark of this government. I am very pleased that the Australian Institute of Family Studies and their head, Alan Hayes, have been actively involved in thinking through the way in which the ACT trial will operate and thinking through the best way of evaluating this.

I want to go to something that you often hear from those opposite—that, because Queanbeyan clubs are not affected by mandatory precommitment, such a trial would automatically fail. The thing about this criticism is that it fundamentally misunderstands what mandatory precommitment does. With mandatory precommitment, the government does not set a cap on what you can bet; it asks you to set your own cap. Those opposite suggest that people will flee to Queanbeyan in order to avoid the cap. You do not need to do that. If you think at the outset that you want a higher limit, you set that higher limit yourself. That is the thing about mandatory precommitment. We are helping you to keep the promise that you make to yourself. If you say that you want to stop when you spend $200, we help you to stop when you hit $200. So people are not going to flee to Queanbeyan as a result of this.

What is going to happen is that we are going to help people break out of that zone in which they end up spending more than they intended to, go beyond their discretionary income and start spending money that was intended for food, groceries and the kids. You hear some of the most horrendous stories around the impact of problem gambling. One that sticks in my mind is of a little boy who says: 'Dad, could we get a pokie machine at home so Mum can stay at home with us and gamble here?' Those sorts of stories about families that are torn apart by the impact of problem gambling are stories that ought to impel us in this House to act.

The bill that is before the House will ensure that all gaming machines are part of a state-wide precommitment system, and that they display electronic warnings, by 2016—recognising that small venues will need longer implementation time lines. New machines, manufactured or imported, from the end of 2013 will be capable of supporting precommitment. We are placing a limit of $250on ATM withdrawals. And we are making sure that these changes are implemented in conjunction with stakeholders. There will be a Productivity Commission review in 2014 that will assess the progress of the measures.

I am often surprised when those opposite say that we need more evidence on this, because we have a substantial body of evidence, the most important of which is the Productivity Commission's report on problem gambling. What we need to do now is to take the steps to implement that report.

I am pleased too that we are going to see an Australian Gambling Research Centre that will be run as part of the Australian Institute of Family Studies. Under the leadership of Alan Hayes, the Australian Institute of Family Studies has become a premier policymaking body across social and economic policy. It will be an important part of making sure that we assess the ACT trial and that we continue to evaluate what we are doing in this area. The government's reforms are grounded in the notion of what Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler call 'libertarian paternalism'—that is, we ought not to impose on people any more regulation than is necessary. The thing about libertarian paternalism is that those opposite ought to like this because it is libertarian, because you set the limit yourself. If you want that limit to be $10,000 a month, that is the limit you can set. If you want it to be $200 a month, that is what you set. The paternalism comes from something that you impose on yourself. The paternalism is your ability to say: 'I've got a self-control problem. Don't let me go past what the family's discretionary budget allows. Don't let me spend more than I want to, when I get into the zone at three o'clock in the morning with drinks coming to me and without the perspective of where gambling ought to be in my life.'

The story of Gary Hatcliffe that I told at the outset is one that all of us in this place should bear in mind. Mr Hatcliffe is aware of his challenges. He is aware of his own self-control problem. He is aware that it is only through mandatory precommitment that he will be able to go into a club and enjoy a drink with his mates without again getting caught in the zone.

9:08 pm

Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to oppose the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and cognate bills, this insidious legislation that will deliver no more than what is already out there. Only this Labor government, supported by the member for Denison, would believe that introducing another layer of bureaucratic regulation will cure an addiction. It won't. It is the same as saying to an alcoholic, 'We'll limit you to one drink a day, and that will cure your addiction.' It does not work that way.

Anyone who has dealt with people with addictions understands one thing: it is education, information and intervention that address addiction. Only a fool would believe that someone with a serious gambling problem would voluntarily put forward a limit on themselves on how much they will spend. Only a fool would believe that that would restrict them to this one form of gambling, because when they have hit their limit they will then move home to the computer, go on the internet and gamble way, or they will go to the track and bet on the horses. They might slip down to the SP or down to the TAB. You see, this is incomplete.

This is a dirty deal that was done to get government. This was a deal that was put to the back blocks and then, when they needed the member for Denison's vote, resurrected again. In fact, it was the minister who said back in May that voluntary precommitment would not work. But here we have this hypocritical move where the legislation has come forward. I just have to wonder: which bill is it that they need the vote of the member for Denison to achieve, for which they have sold out an industry? They are prepared to sell out an industry such as the clubs and hotels to the tune of $1 billion—that is what the cost of this will be—for a vote. That is an expensive little vote—expensive for other people. By the way, it amounts to around a $120 million cost for the clubs and pubs in my electorate of Paterson. It is $120 million in my electorate and $1 billion across Australia that will not be spent upgrading facilities, employing more people—

Photo of Craig KellyCraig Kelly (Hughes, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source


Photo of Bob BaldwinBob Baldwin (Paterson, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Tourism) Share this | | Hansard source

And that is the critical one, my friend: supporting the charities in the community. It is the football team and all those little sporting events. When somebody has cancer and they need to do a fundraiser, the pubs jump in. They put on the day or the afternoon and they raise the money because they care about their customers and their community. This is an uneven-handed approach.

I sat in this House when the government wanted to address another form of addiction: binge drinking. They said, 'What we've got to do is get rid of the alcopops by whacking up the tax. If we put up the tax, it'll stop the binge drinking.' They raised $300 million. I cannot remember the last time I saw an ad on the TV, heard one on the radio or read something in the paper on binge drinking from that $300 million that went into consolidated revenue.

They were a government that had a problem with binge spending, which they tried to address by taxing what they thought was binge drinking. By the way, ask any publican how the sales of 750-millilitre bottles of spirits and one-litre Cokes are going. All of a sudden, in that situation, kids that had been drinking a set amount of alcohol per drink were now drinking unregulated mixes of alcohol.

This is not about a gambling addiction; this is a spending addiction, because the government also want to introduce two levies. They want to introduce a federal pokies tax to set up a gambling research centre, and they want to replicate a tax that is being collected by the states. I have long said—and I have said to the hotels and to the clubs—that more needs to be done to have people on the ground doing the work that the Salvos and Vinnies are out there doing now, intervening on a one-on-one basis, identifying the problem and working with people. More needs to be done to use the current systems of voluntary precommitment that exist within these pubs and clubs. This is heavy handed. This is a backdoor way to raise more pokie tax at a federal level, setting up another layer of bureaucracy and penalising those with the skin in the game who are out there working for their community, building businesses and employing people.

The government has introduced a mandatory precommitment trial in the ACT. That trial has not been completed. Where is the matrix of evaluation or the benefits to the community? How many people signed up? How many people actually hit the limit that they put on there? You see, this is a rush and bust in a deal that was done for another reason. Our Prime Minister might not remember what she signed when she was a lawyer, but I bet she remembers the deal she signed with the member for Denison, a deal which she broke and which she has now had to resurrect. This Prime Minister did this deal, broke it and put it to the backburner. I say to the Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities that he probably has a smile on his face because it is probably his bill that he has had to get the member across the line to support, which is why this bill has come back on.

The other issue that worries me is the limit and location placed on ATMs within venues. Obviously those that decide this legislation have no understanding of what happens in regional and rural country areas in particular, where the ATM in the pub or the club might actually be the bank for the town. Putting a limit on them will affect people's ability to draw cash out to go and buy groceries or petrol or spend as they need to. Importantly for the businesses involved, it has been found that around 70 per cent of money that has been withdrawn from these ATMs is actually spent on food and beverages in those facilities. So putting these caps on will have a negative effect on businesses in the regions.

The industry, in a letter written to the minister by Gaming Technologies Association, has put to the government that what it wants to do with the introduction of these machines will not be able to be completed. A letter dated 22 November by Gaming Technologies Association to the Minster for Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs states: 'We write in response to the release of the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and the public hearings held last week by the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform. Having had the opportunity to consider and analyse the bill and the evidence presented at the hearing, we write to advise you that the requirements of the bill cannot be met. The bill requires that all new gaming machines must be precommitment capable by 31 December 2013. The definition of "precommitment capable" has been left to regulations, about which formal consultation has not begun.'

The government have put a time line in but they have not said what is required in the regulations. They have said they are going to produce a whole new bureaucracy and there are going to be two levies—not one but two. But there is no costing, nothing set out in the forward estimates, nothing in the explanatory memorandum. The industry does not know how it is going to be taxed by this government. Across Australia, gambling licence fees and taxes are collected by the state governments. That is what needs to remain and those state governments must take responsibility in working with industry to address issues such as problem gambling. Putting it back down to the state government level, they can use some of the taxes they already collect to invest in intervention and education services. The idea of collecting whole new taxes to satisfy a vote required in this parliament from the member for Denison for this hung government, at a cost of over a billion dollars to the industry, is ridiculous to say the least.

Gambling can be a problem—it can be a very big problem—and so can alcoholism. They both have effects on the family; they both have effects on the community. But this bill is a voluntary precommitment. There are not too many gambling addicts who are going to line up to set a limit. The issue here, and the one that worries me, is that this precommitment must be linked to a state based data system. I think that is part of the nanny state, and it is a back door entry to mandatory precommitment. I cannot see it as being acceptable. The clubs and the pubs have spoken to members opposite. Indeed, in your role as member for Robertson, Madam Deputy Speaker, I know they have been in touch with you. They are taking this matter very seriously. At the end of the day there is not going to be a lot of upside that is not already being delivered, because there already is voluntary precommitment. But there is going to be a massive cost impact on this industry, and that is unfair.

I do not intend to delay the House any further. I have made my point. We will oppose this legislation. We will oppose it vehemently. We believe that those that are investing and providing jobs and opportunity in the community deserve to be supported. They cannot be taxed twice on their poker machines—by a state government and a federal government. They cannot have it explained to them that this is about providing good when they are already providing voluntary precommitment. This is just another level of bureaucracy that will not address an addiction one iota; it will not make one measurable difference. It is a shame this government has had to sell out an industry for the sake of a vote.

Debate adjourned.