Senate debates

Wednesday, 5 March 2014


Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013; Second Reading

11:25 am

Photo of Nick XenophonNick Xenophon (SA, Independent) Share this | Hansard source

I have already made my position on this bill very clear. I will be focusing my remarks in relation to the government's attempts to repeal the gambling reforms, and to introduce any of the other measures in this bill, on the gambling reforms.

When the Gambling Reform Bill 2012 was introduced I said it was a Hobson's choice for me; one that is ostensibly a free choice, but in reality no choice at all. At the time, I voted against those reforms for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the then government had bowed to industry pressure and had broken their promise with Andrew Wilkie, the member for Denison, rather than make a stand on poker machine reform. Secondly, because the reforms that were included in the legislation were so watered down compared to what was promised that they would not have been anywhere near as effective as they needed to be. Thirdly, because I believed there was still the capacity to negotiate for a better deal for problem gamblers. And fourthly, because I did not want to be seen to be complicit in such a breach of faith by the former government—a promise broken, I believe, so cynically. Having said that, I do not and I cannot criticise Mr Wilkie, the member for Denison, or Senator Di Natale for their support of those reforms, because I believe they at all times acted in good faith and with good hearts.

However, I cannot deny that the former government's reforms did at least set a precedent in terms of the federal oversight of gambling reform; that, constitutionally, it is clear that the Commonwealth can act and should act in respect of problem gambling reform—because you cannot trust the states when it comes to gambling reform. When state governments between them rake in something like $4 billion a year in taxes on gambling, most of that from poker machines, then they are hopelessly conflicted when it comes to tackling problem gambling. And we know that the predominant cause of gambling addiction in this country is poker machines.

I oppose this government's reform because it too is behaving in an extraordinarily cynical manner. Never before have problem gamblers and their families been so cruelly abandoned by those with the power to put in place a framework that would help limit the harm caused by poker machine addiction. I also include the opposition in this. I note Senator Moore's contribution; Senator Moore, too, has approached this issue of gambling reform genuinely and with a good heart. But it seems clear that the Labor caucus, and the ALP caucus as a whole, has voted to walk away from even the minimalist reforms they came up with.

This federal government's proposed encouraging responsible gambling policy, as it is called, will do nothing to curb the extent of problem gambling in our communities. It will only further stigmatise those who suffer from this addiction and it will make it harder for problem gamblers to control their spending and to limit their losses. So I do not want to be part of what I see as a very cynical move by this government—which caved in to the club and hotel lobbies. In fact, it was largely the hotel lobby and the poker machine lobby, but the clubs were a convenient cover for them, because the clubs took the running on this, whereas the for-profit pubs basically let the clubs do their work for them.

I oppose the current government's moves to repeal these minimalist reforms. The system in place now is not perfect; far from it, but it has at least provided a foundation to go further. Voluntary pre-commitment, which is central to this legislation, is not an effective way to help problem gamblers or to make poker machines safer and less addictive. Problem gambling is an addiction. It is not as simple as a matter of choice or willpower, as the government and Minister Kevin Andrews would have us say. In the most basic sense, the problem of voluntary pre-commitment is that, no matter how many loss limits the gambler sets, or how much the system restricts their activity, there is nothing to stop them pulling their pre-commitment card out of the machine and continuing to play outside the system.

The government's proposal to allow venue based precommitment is even worse. Not only is it still voluntary, but there is nothing to address the issue of gamblers going from venue to venue as they reach their limits. The very fact that the government do not seem to understand or appreciate this shows they have little or no understanding of problem gambling as a whole. I say that with one caveat. Back in May 2012, I stood side by side with the then Leader of the Opposition Tony Abbott to speak about the impact of online gambling, and I was very heartened by what the now Prime Minister said in relation to that. There was genuine concern on his part in relation to the proliferation of online gambling and 'how mobile phones could be turned into a virtual casino', to paraphrase his words at that conference. I appreciate what Mr Abbott said then and I do not believe his views have changed in relation to that. There was a genuine concern about the impact of online gambling.

But I believe those genuine concerns are in complete discord with what the government is now doing in respect of even minimalist gambling reforms. Let us go to the issue of voluntary precommitment. Some two years ago, a study into precommitment, prepared for the Nova Scotia Gaming Foundation in Canada, reported that voluntary schemes consistently and miserably fail because they rely on the willpower of players—that is, players had to have the willpower not to keep playing outside the system when they reach their limit. Further, the study found that high-risk players are less likely to take precommitment options and will continue to play unless they are locked out of the system completely when they have reached their limit.

I know that some people are arguing we should not be forcing people to set limits, and then shutting them out of what is essentially a form of entertainment. So I ask this: in what other form of so-called entertainment can you lose $1,200 an hour? According to the Productivity Commission, that is how much you can lose in an hour of poker machine gambling. What other form of so-called entertainment is there that causes such levels of depression, family break-up and criminality? Gambling addiction is one of the biggest causes of crime, outside of drug addiction, in this country. What other form of so-called entertainment can lead to people harming themselves and, most tragically of all, taking their own lives?

The worst part of my job is sitting down with family members who have lost a loved one through a gambling-related suicide. To anyone who is listening or who reads this in the Hansard, if you know someone who has got a problem, there are agencies that can help. There is always hope. They should not be embarrassed or ashamed because of their gambling addiction. The ones who should be embarrassed and ashamed are the industry that so capriciously feeds on that addiction and the governments, state and federal, that have stood by and failed to act adequately to tackle this enormous problem in the community.

If we really want to consider poker machines as entertainment we need to reduce the intensity. One of the things that makes them so addictive is their volatility. In the Senate inquiries I have sat on, that is absolutely clear from the evidence of the experts we have spoken to. We need to introduce limits on bets, on spin rates and on the amount of credit that the machine will accept at one time. A significant and key recommendation of the Productivity Commission's 2010 report was the introduction of a $1 maximum bet and the reduction of the maximum loss to $120 an hour.

I, along with Senator Di Natale and Senator Madigan, have already introduced a bill that would have achieved these aims. When I introduced amendments to the former government's bills in line with these measures, they were not accepted by the former government or by the former opposition. If you take into account that 88 per cent of recreational gamblers do not spend more than $1 per spin at any time, then what would the harm be? It would be of no inconvenience at all to recreational gamblers.

The government's rationale for repealing the national gambling regulator is that the states and territories already have control of gambling regulations. Just recently, a survey by British consultancy H2GC revealed that Australians are per capita the biggest gamblers in the world. Australians lose over $1,000 per adult—more than any other country. Nearly half of that amount, $460, is lost on non-casino poker machines, outstripping the US by a margin of 18 to 1. These amounts are per capita and assume that everyone in Australia shares an equal split in the losses. But the Productivity Commission estimates that around 30 per cent of people play the pokies regularly, so the losses are probably around $1,500 per head for those who actually play poker machines. Of course, the majority of losses come as a general rule from problem gamblers—those who play on a regular basis—which skews the amount even further. These numbers prove that state and territory governments are not effectively regulating gambling.

We have heard from the Productivity Commission again and again that something like $5 billion a year, or 40 per cent of the more than $12 billion a year lost on poker machines, comes from problem gamblers—people who can least afford it, people who are suffering hardship, people who are in the grip of an addiction. That makes it particularly tragic that there is a loss of political will on both sides to effectively tackle this problem. We know from the Productivity Commission's report that the number of Australians who play poker machines regularly—that is, at least once a week—is 600,000. The number of regular players of poker machines who are problem gamblers is about 15 per cent. Another 280,000 people are categorised as being at moderate risk of problem gambling—people on the way to developing a gambling addiction.

We know that things have not improved since 1999, when the Productivity Commission did its first report, so I cannot understand why the government would now believe things will suddenly be okay—unless they are deliberately turning a blind eye to problem gambling. We cannot underestimate the vested interests in this argument. Ever since the then Prime Minister Gillard announced a national approach to poker machine reform, the clubs, the hotels and the industry generally have been waging a hysterical campaign that claims they will all be left penniless and unable to serve their communities. Research undertaken in 2012 by Dr Charles Livingstone of Monash University, together with UnitingCare Australia, proved that claim to be as false as all the others. In the New South Wales electorate of Blaxland, losses on poker machines equal 8.2 per cent of median individual income, based on the entire population, not just those who play the pokies. For people who use the pokies, losses average a staggering 34 per cent of their income—over one-third of their income!

According to Dr Livingstone, Blaxland's 2,240 poker machines each collect an average of more than $79,000 a year in losses, a total of $177.5 million. That means that the average annual pokie expenditure for every adult in the electorate is $1,690. But according to community benefit claims made by clubs to the New South Wales government, in 2010 only 1.4 per cent of the amount lost on pokies was returned to the community. That is not an isolated case.

Dr Livingstone's research found similar examples across New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the ACT. And, dare I say it, the situation in my home state of South Australia is really no different. In the most affluent electorate of Kooyong, in Victoria, losses account for about 2.2 per cent of median individual income for pokie players, but community benefits claimed by clubs in that area amounted to only $27,400 from over $19 million in losses, or 0.1 per cent. So claims that clubs were the main support for entire community structures, and that our little kids would be left wandering around deserted ovals football-less and guernseyless, are as exaggerated as the rest of the club's claims.

It is worth mentioning that the state that has the greatest degree of sporting participation; the state that seems to do better in community participation in sports, is Western Australia, which does not have poker machines outside of the Burswood Casino.

Even if these claims by the clubs were true—and we know that they are not—we cannot forget that over 40 per cent of that money comes from problem gamblers. So that group of people is losing a disproportionately large percentage of the total. I wonder how parents feel about the fact that their kid could be wearing a uniform paid for by an organisation that is responsible for someone else's child missing out on breakfast.

The government's position on this is untenable. While I cannot pretend the provisions of the National Gambling Reform Act are anywhere near the best outcome, I also cannot support its repeal without better provisions to replace it. This is a very cynical move by the government. This issue will not go away: the fact that there are literally hundreds of thousands of Australians directly impacted today by poker machine addiction means that it will not. We know from the Productivity Commission that for every problem gambler there are, on average, seven people affected by it. So right now, around this nation, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are suffering directly because of poker machine addiction. We need to do something about it. This attempt by the government is a clear abrogation of their duty of care to the community and the opposition has cynically joined them in that.


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