Wednesday, 5 March 2014
Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading
I rise to make a short statement about one component of this bill, and that is the requirement to repeal the hard won reforms of the previous parliament around poker machines. This bill seeks to repeal the very modest reforms that were introduced by the previous government with the reluctant support of the Greens. The previous parliament had a wonderful opportunity to take action on the issue of problem gambling. It was an issue that came to national prominence on the basis of the fact that we had a minority government with several crossbenchers who recognised that this was one of the great unmet challenges of government because successive state governments had failed in their duty to protect ordinary people who were losing billions of dollars on poker machines. They also recognised that Australia had a very unique problem because our poker machines were equivalent to the most aggressive and rapacious machines anywhere in the world. If they were guns they would be the semiautomatic weapons of the gun world.
Some very modest reforms were proposed initially. There was a Productivity Commission backed proposal for one dollar bet limits. The Prime Minister agreed to a scheme of mandatory precommitment. Most disappointingly, those reforms fell apart when there was a change to the composition of the parliament and Peter Slipper was elevated to the position of Speaker. That is the history of that reform. Ultimately, the previous government suggested a scheme of voluntary precommitment, at least ensuring that every machine that was replaced and that every new machine would have mandatory precommitment technology and the opportunity to network those machines.
The Greens reluctantly supported it because we knew that we were not going to achieve reform other than the one that was proposed by the then government . We supported it because it was a small step forward, but we were disappointed that the level of ambition, in terms of attempting to address the issue of problem gambling, was so limited. Ultimately, the proposal that passed the parliament would, for the very first time, have put the federal government in the poker machine space. Up until that time this had been the domain of state governments. As far as my own personal commitment to this issue is concerned, for the first time I was pleased that we finally got a federal government to recognise that what we have here is a regressive tax, predominantly targeting people on low incomes. The federal government was finally prepared to act—not in a way that we would have liked, but at least taking a step into this issue, which future parliaments could build on.
This new government always opposed reform in this area because it is hand in glove with the gambling industry. It was remarkable that, in the lead-up to the election, the now minister introduced the now government's policy on the Clubs Australia website. It is absolutely remarkable that we would have a minister who is charged with gambling policy and who believes that—rather than balancing the needs of industry and protecting ordinary members of the community who become addicted to poker machines—he should act, essentially, as the industry shield—as someone out there campaigning for the pokies industry. That the now minister in this area announced the coalition policies on the Clubs Australia website was, I think, a reflection of where this government's priorities lie.
It was even more disappointing that, despite all of the pain and the anguish that this issue brought the Labor Party in their last term of government, the Labor Party have effectively backed the government's repeal of the very modest poker machine reforms. For me, in my short time in this place, that was a huge shock—a huge disappointment. It was probably the greatest disappointment that I have had in the area of gambling policy. It is an issue that brought so much pain and political discomfort to the previous government; I find it remarkable that, after they had finally mustered that courage to introduce such modest reforms, they would now back away from those reforms. I was going to say that I do not understand it, but I do understand it. I understand it because it represents everything that is wrong with politics in Australia—that is, that we have vested interests who patrol the corridors of parliament. People are walking in and out of offices every day. If they are not walking in and out of offices as lobbyists, they are employed as parliamentary staffers, and they are doing the bidding of big business and ensuring that members of parliament are subjected to concerted lobbying and pressure. And politicians do not have the guts to stand up to them.
That is why we are here today. We are here today because Clubs Australia have mounted a successful campaign. Both sides of politics are essentially standing up for the interests of big business. They are standing up for the interests of an industry that strips billions of dollars from people on low incomes. No-one on either side of the chamber has the political courage to stand up and say: 'We're going to take a stand here. We're going to stand up to this industry. We're going to stand by these very modest reforms that were introduced.'
Here we are. The federal government is now backtracking on the poker machine reforms. It is a great disappointment. It reflects everything that is wrong in Australian politics—the power of big business and the power of vested interests. The undue influence is not just in terms of this issue; we have seen it time and time again. We saw it during the debate on the mining tax. We have seen it in a range of areas and now we are seeing it here in relation to poker machines.
It is a great disappointment and the Greens absolutely oppose that section of the bill that seeks to remove protections for ordinary people in relation to poker machines. Quite simply, this is an issue that could be addressed in this way: put one-dollar-bet limits on machines. This would allow ordinary punters to have a punt on the pokies and it would reduce the amount of money that people will lose from several thousands of dollars in an hour to a few hundred dollars. In that way, we would ensure that young kids do not go hungry at night, that people do not lose their homes and that marriages do not break up. But, unfortunately, we have taken a step back from that today, and it is to the shame of both sides of politics.