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Thursday, 27 September 2001
Page: 31786

Dr THEOPHANOUS (10:42 AM) —It is not often that I disagree with my colleague, the member for the Northern Territory but, unlike the member for Hinkler, I am concerned about all forms of gambling in Australia and I am concerned about what has been happening with the massive expansion of gambling in this country.

The member for the Northern Territory says, `If we've got all of that, why don't we have a bit more?' I believe that what we have got to do is put a stop to new forms of gambling arising and start to reverse the trends in relation to the most insidious forms that have appeared in this country. I am talking here about the poker machine phenomenon, which has been a total disaster. When I say it has been a total disaster I do not mean simply in terms of the way people have lost so much money on the poker machines. I mean the social consequences of those losses.

Mr Slipper —We have a huge proportion of the world's machines in this country.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —Yes, we do, as the parliamentary secretary says. When this bill went through the House this was one of the rare occasions that I actually supported a bill from the government. Mr Andren, the other Independent, and I did so on the basis that we believe that this is a whole new area of gambling that is going to have disastrous consequences if it is allowed to spread. I do not say, as some do, `This is the only area of gambling which we need to tackle.' No. We also need to tackle the other areas. I will come back to that in a minute.

It seems to me that in what the member for the Northern Territory put forward there were two basic arguments. One was: if you have got every other type of gambling, why don't you have this one? The answer to that is clear. If you open up this new type of gambling, you can stay in your own home, turn on the Internet and, if you are really mad, gamble away in the same night maybe all of your money. People are already doing enough of this in the casinos and with poker machines which have appeared in so many clubs and hotels throughout this country, especially in the state of Victoria.

We used to have a situation in Sydney—and in New South Wales—where poker machines were only available to nonprofit organisations. What then happened in Victoria? To their utter disgrace, the previous Labor government introduced poker machines into profitable organisations—hotels, clubs and any other organisation able to make a buck. They appeared everywhere.

Mr Slipper —They wanted that revenue.

Dr THEOPHANOUS —The parliamentary secretary says they wanted the revenue. But the fact of the matter is that what happened was a disgrace. The whole social culture of Victoria has been changed because of this phenomenon, even the pubs. Pubs used to be a place where you went and had a drink and mixed with your mates. You go to a pub now in Victoria, and what do you see? You see people not talking to each other at all. They are all in front of these damn machines and losing thousands of dollars.

Even the state government recently admitted how many millions and millions were lost by Victorians. But do they do anything about it? They say, `We might have to introduce a few regulatory things here and there to stop the number of times you do it.' But the point is: the phenomenon has occurred. It has happened and it has changed the culture even in hotels now. You go to a hotel and people do not mix; they do not socialise. They just play these damn machines and they lose all their money. Whether it is the wife or the husband, what happens when they do not have any money to supply the basic goods and services for the children? I know about this because in my electorate we have the Salvation Army and the care centre who continually run out of food for children. Why? It is because these people lose so much money in this gambling phenomenon.

Of course, you cannot ban gambling altogether. Nobody is saying that. But the more opportunities you make available, the worse it gets. There is absolutely no doubt about that. This is what happened in Victoria with the poker machines. Now it is very difficult to reverse such a phenomenon. The hotels that got the poker machines became very rich and had plenty of customers. The occasional old traditional pub that did not get them went to the wall. We have a situation now where the hotel industry has become totally dependent on these poker machines and the whole culture has been changed.

Imagine what would happen if Internet gambling were to become totally available in the way in which it has been suggested. We would have the potential to bring the problem into every home. It is an outrage to suggest that there is no social issue here. I agree with the member for the Northern Territory that there could be some money in this. Since when did the Labor Party support matters only because there is money in it? I do not know where they got this idea that we should not proceed to ban Internet gambling. Of course we should ban it. Not only that, we should work for the reversal of what has already happened.

I do not often agree with the Prime Minister—everybody knows that—but I agree with him on this point: the gambling disease has become a curse in this country. It has got to the point where it is affecting the social fabric in a very serious way. It is all right for middle-class and upper-class people to have their flutters at the casino. Even if they lose $1,000 or $2,000 it does not matter so much. But the poor people without big incomes who have easy forms of gambling available to them in this way include sad cases where pensioners get their pensions and go off to the poker machines and waste all their money.

If interactive gambling were to proceed, not only would we have the groups that go to clubs and hotels and gamble away all their money; we would also have young people who are accustomed to the use of the Internet suddenly discovering that this was a way forward. And what would happen? Young people would be afflicted by this disease. Not only would we have the older people, the pensioners and so on, who now go to these hotels—some of them go every day and waste all their money—but also, younger people who are used to working with the Internet would get involved.

We have to understand that society needs some goals other than gambling. Sport is an important Australian phenomenon. We should encourage that. We have so many cultural activities. There are so many activities conducted by different organisations in our society—which, by the way, need support from people. Many of these are not being supported because of the time being spent by individuals on the gambling disease. I refer to activities like volunteer work, which Australians are good at. We could have more people volunteering to do good works were it not for the fact that there is so much time and effort being totally wasted because of this gambling disease. We are told that, because it is there and because it is going to become more readily available at an international level, we must have it here in Australia.

If this bill represents only a start in coming to grips with the gambling disease, let it be a start. Let it be an important start. Let us draw a line; let us say that we, as parliamentarians, care about this phenomenon and that we want to stop it. I am not referring to ordinary recreational gambling; I am referring to the excesses and the situation where people are absolutely ruining their lives.

The member for the Northern Territory said that there are all of these responsible organisations that control gambling; therefore they could easily control Internet gambling. How responsible are these organisations? Isn't this the same set of organisations that is constantly promoting gambling? Isn't this the same set of organisations that has promoted the dreadful growth in the number of poker machines to such an enormous degree? When poker machines came in, they said, `We're going to be very responsible.' They now actively try to do everything they can to get people to invest more and more money in these gambling activities.

I do not consider them to be responsible in any social sense. Maybe they are responsible in the sense that they do not resort to criminal activities, but that is not the same as their being responsible and saying, `This particular individual is going beyond the bounds and is destroying himself and his family.' They do not do that. There are no controls in that way. We then have to say that at least in a social milieu some people might see this person—it does not happen often but it does occasionally—and perhaps give him a hand or advice. If Internet gambling is available in the person's own home, with nobody knowing about it, that person could, in the space of a day or two or a week, totally lose their assets—not only their income but their assets. The number of people who have lost everything through gambling is frightening.

I bring up this point: we do not publicise the statistics, but suicide as a result of gambling is a serious problem. People do come to that desperation point. The thing about gambling is, as the great Dostoevski said in his novels, the way in which it gets to you. You think, `The next round, I am going to win, and then I am going to win the round after that, and the one after that.'

The parliament secretary wanted me to finish within 10 minutes, and I have gone over time. But I want to say that I oppose the introduction of interactive gambling into Australia, and I believe this bill is a good move. I think we should also work together with the states. Whoever wins the federal election should bring together the state governments and tackle directly the problem of the excessive gambling with poker machines in clubs and hotels which has got to such a point that it is undermining and destroying the social fabric of this country.