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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 919


Senator MOORE (Queensland) (10:21): Senator Madigan, your words could not be truer. This issue is not going to go away, and I believe that the discussion that we will have in this chamber today will come back many times because this is one thing that we all agree on. I think that every speaker who has taken part in the debate so far has reinforced the knowledge that the issue of people who have serious problems with gambling, whose relationships, whose lives and whose security are all threatened by their addiction to gambling, is an acknowledged fact in our country.

Work has been done over a number of years by strong activists and people who have gone out of their way to fight in sometimes very unpopular battles to raise these issues; we owe them a great debt of thanks. Their legacy means that we, not just as legislators but as members of the community, need to ensure that there is a commitment to working within our system—and always within our system—to come up with some solutions and options where we can make the balance about which we speak so often in this chamber, for the right and effective role of legislation and regulation as opposed to individual citizens' rights and the ability of business to make what they need to have as an effective profit.

To the three senators who have co-sponsored this bill now over two parliaments: it is always damning when someone gets up and says, 'I deeply applaud the work you've done,' and, 'We acknowledge that your issues are important,' and, 'We agree with the core issue.' That is often the prelude to being told, 'We are not supporting your bill,' and in fact that is indeed true. So the opposition is not supporting this bill in the same way that we did not support it last time that it came for discussion and consideration.

There are a number of reasons for this. The number one reason is that I think there needs to be a lot more work done before we go down the options that are put forward in this bill. A lot of the debate this morning has focused on the one-dollar bets, and of course I will talk about that as well. But with the other elements in the bill, whilst there has been increased scrutiny and research in this area there still remains a lot of debate about what the best responses are to the acknowledged issue of gambling. Senator Madigan raised the fact that there is a range of gambling curses in our country, and that is very true. Looking particularly at the issue of poker machines, there is no clear evidence that people only go to poker machines. With the issues around gambling in our country now there is a range of different options for people to choose from if they wish to get whatever the buzz is that they receive from gambling—there are a number of different ways that they can get that. Poker machines are but one, but I do agree that for access, and through some of the data that we have, they are a particular scourge in our community.

I am never a person to use statistics too often but today I will, from the wonderful Productivity Commission report that I think all of the people who are sitting in the chamber today have read. I would hope that many more people than just the number who are here today are aware of that Productivity Commission report. It is a very large document, but I think it was an important point in the research and acknowledgement of this issue that that Productivity Commission inquiry was actually set up. It was recommended by our previous Senate committee. Senator Boyce was on that committee, as were Senator Xenophon and Senator Siewert, so there are at least a few of us in the room who have read the report—and I know that Senator Madigan has as well.

One of the clear recommendations of our original committee, which I think was in 2010—correct me if I am wrong—was that there should be an independent review by the Productivity Commission into the issues of online gambling in our country. The then Treasurer agreed and put that forward, and the body of work that came out of the commission I think is now like a base document that people can turn to when they are considering the issues. They can read this report and see the issues that are raised in there.

I know that the recommendations in the bill before us were discussed by the Productivity Commission. At the beginning they established a snapshot of the issue in our country. The Productivity Commission report was published in 2010 but I think it is still very timely. What we always need to do with these things is keep upgrading our data; but it gave us an idea, an estimation, of the prevalence of problem gambling in our community. At that time, through the data they had and the research information they had, they said that there were between 80,000 and 160,000—which is a pretty big margin of error—Australian adults suffering severe problems from their gambling. At that time that was calculated to be about 0.5 to one per cent of adults.

In addition there were between 230,000 and 350,000 people at moderate risk, who experienced lower levels of harm. We know that people who are in that group have the potential, if there is not intervention or support, to then have a more serious problem. Then there is the wider concern that if there is not the acknowledgement of the issue and some joint effort to see what responses can be made, these figures could grow. What had happened, and what was said at the time, was that there was insufficient education in our community to make people aware that this was an issue and, probably more importantly, that this was an issue which could impact on you or your family. If you did not know that this was around you would not be able to identify that you may be one of the people who has the potential to do harm to yourself and to your whole network of friends and community by falling into the severe aspects of problem gambling.

Because we are particularly talking in this debate around the issues of online gambling, another point was that about four per cent of adults play gaming machines weekly or more often. Around 15 per cent of this group would be classified as problem gamblers, with around an additional 15 per cent experiencing moderate risk. Given that basis, it was estimated that problem gamblers account for around 40 per cent of total gaming machine spending—the average of a range of estimates is as high as 60 and most conservatively as low as 20. Moderate-risk gamblers account for a further significant share.

So within that there is an agreed acceptance that a large number of people in our community have been identified, often by others, or have self-identified, and this is an issue for them. Always, when you are talking about statistics, the important element is then to translate our mindset, which has become so focused on numbers, to the people involved in this. In their contributions, Senator Xenophon, Senator Di Natale, Senator Madigan and Senator Williams all pointed out the personal impact and the fact that this is not just an argument about numbers.

Going from the acceptance that there is an issue, we move to the bill that we have before us. On the issue of $1 bets, there is some sort of instinctive reaction that, if you could only bet $1 at a time, you would be more likely not to have an accumulated impact of the problem. However, that is one element. You cannot jump from that kind of instinctive response to any proven evidence, to any kind of absolute knowledge that that is the first response that should happen. Too often over the last 18 months, when we have talked about this issue, it has become almost a litany that, if we had $1 bets, there would be no problem and, if we could only achieve this simple thing, we would have a result. I always am concerned when a single kind of response becomes somehow sanctified: 'If only we did that, there would be no problem.' I have a kind of reactive instinctive response: if something is seemingly so simple, why then do we put so much importance on it?

We then had, through the Productivity Commission, and through the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform which was set up by Minister Macklin, more consultation and consideration of a range of issues. We had significant evidence from the industry and from various people about the potential impact and the potential cost if we just said, 'Okay, we'll move through all these machines and make them all $1 bets.' To begin with, we had people from our community who said: 'We don't want that. We actually are part of the wider community. Whilst we acknowledge that there are people who have problems, we do not believe that our freedom, our personal choice, our ability to go and gamble, should be legislated from on high and restricted so that the only way we are able to use online machines is if we can only bet $1 at a time. We are adults, we understand what we are doing and it is our right to be able to have options in what we choose to do with our money and our time.' So it was not just industry—although I am going to go on and talk about the industry impact.

I think there has been some kind of battleline drawn up to say that this battle is exclusively between those of us who care about people who are damaged by problem gambling, and the industry whoever they are—this large industry who have, allegedly, according to the people on the other side of the battleline, no concern, no awareness and no knowledge about the impact that their business could have on people who have an illness. And I put it out there that we are talking about people with an illness. The people who are damaged by the issues around gambling have an illness—an addiction that causes them not to be able to have control.

We had a range of submissions to our inquiry, and I know the Productivity Commission did to theirs, from people in the community who said—and I know that there are people who feel very strongly about this—that there is no role for government in stepping into any form of prohibition. Whilst $1 bets is not a full prohibition, it means that people do not have the options that they think they should have in an area of personal entertainment where they receive significant pleasure. There was that group of people who raised their concerns, and there was the industry.

I know the senators who have put forward this bill relied very strongly on the Productivity Commission report, and I think that is fair; that is a great knowledge base. However, when you read the Productivity Commission report, after they make the point that a $1 bet system would be an option to respond to people who have problems, they then go into an extensive chapter about what the cost would be to actually implement that form of limitation. They say—and I apologise, I am going to throw some figures around—that there are approximately 200,000 EGMs, or electronic gaming machines, in 5,700 venues across Australia. They go on to say—this is around page 19.4 of the report—that gaming venues operate a mix of machines of different ages, manufacturers, game parameters and upgrade capabilities. Their advice suggests that the larger venues—and in the debates that we have, people have a bit of a concentration on the larger venues as opposed to the kinds of clubs that Senator Williams was referring to in small country towns—typically have higher volumes of gaming activity and tend to replace their machines more regularly and therefore, on average, have relatively newer machines compared with smaller venues. The Productivity Commission go on to say that there is a cost to the clubs and the venues in upgrading and changing their machines. So they have a bit of a schedule going.

On one of our Senate committees we had the privilege to go and visit one of the larger distributors of these machines—they are not made in Australia—to see how the machines worked. It was interesting that, for all five or six of us there from the committee, it seemed to be the first time we had actually played these machines, so maybe we were not a true cross-section of our community. We were quite transfixed at just seeing how the machines worked and the complex mechanisms that set them up.

The industry's argument around the institution of a $1 bet regime is that to adjust machines is an extraordinarily expensive proposition. To take an existing machine, no matter whether you are in a larger or smaller venue, and engineer a change is a very difficult thing. The idea would be that, as machines turn over, you would upgrade the machines. We talked about this in our committee. If you were going to impose any kind of limitation—$1 bets or any other kind of limitation—you would do that at the time of turnover. That gets back to what I said about how often machines are turned over.

We had evidence that some venues had the same machines for many years, that they did not upgrade because they could not afford to. The licence they had, the turnover they had in their business did not allow them the freedom to turn over like the big operators could. There were estimates of what the cost would be, and again there was a wide range of what that cost could be. There was a significant impost on the industry if you would turn that over. In the same Productivity Commission report it said—and I will put these figures on record because of my natural inclination to put figures on record—that the cost of implementing a $1 maximum bet limit would be in excess of $3 billion to the people working in that industry.

We know that it is a very profitable industry; there is no doubt about that. We have had the philanthropy argument many times about what percentage of income the industry put out to community areas and there have been, I think, some exaggerated claims of the largesse and generosity of some clubs. If you talk to some, you would think that the only reason they exist is to help the local community. Well, we know that is not true. The people who are there are working in a business. They have every right to be in a business, but they need to balance those kinds of exaggerated statements with a true examination of their books. This gets back to one of the core aspects of arguments of this type. What has happened over many years is that people have gone into their battle positions and get overly emotive, I believe, and exaggerate their claims to try and get the attention of the wide number of people in our community for whom this is not such a big issue—if it does not impact on you, you do not really listen to it. So we have had claims and counterclaims all around the place. The one thing that we do know is that there is a problem. What we need to identify is the best response.

One of the other issues raised by the Productivity Commission was the fact that this has for a long time been a state issue and if we do not get the states on board in terms of coming up with a solution then nothing is going to change. So necessarily we need to have the engagement of COAG. We saw amazing pressure being brought out by various people during the previous debates around this issue in the last parliament. It identified that, whilst there is an element of common ground about acknowledging a problem, there was a wide range of concerns about how we actually make that step towards effectively responding to the problem. We need to ensure that at least all the people who are involved in this process should be together so that we can come up with a solution that engages everybody. We know we will not come up with a solution that pleases everybody—I think that is patently obvious. But what we need to do is see that. If people are putting forward significant issues for change and we have seen it, unless we engage the people who have different views around this we will not be able to come up with the solution.

We are not supporting this bill, because though the simple things that are in it are important and are probably or possibly the best way to respond, we do not believe that at this stage there is sufficient evidence to say that we need to have the change put in at the cost it would cause. I seek leave to continue my remarks on the basis that this debate will go on.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.