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Thursday, 16 May 2013
Page: 2853

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (16:31): I move:

That, in order to preserve the integrity of the sporting experience and protect Australian children, the Senate notes the need for law reform, including measures such as:

(a) banning the broadcast advertising of live gambling odds for sports betting;

(b) banning the advertising of sports betting services on television and radio during children’s viewing hours, before 9 pm; and

(c) banning the paid promotion of sports betting services by sporting commentators and their guests during sports broadcasts.

It is fair to say that Australians love sport—it is at the centre of our culture and we are indeed a sporting country. We love to play sport, we love to watch sport. From playing backyard cricket at Mum's to packing the stands of the MCG for the AFL grand final, sport is part of the fabric of our lives. It has played an important role in my own life. I vividly remember as a 10-year-old swimming for the Preston swimming club diving into the ice-cold water of the 50-metre outdoor swimming pool on St Georges Road in Preston each Sunday morning, looking at the stopwatch and trying to beat my personal best time. I remember growing up in Reservoir, in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, and the fierce rivalry of the Dredge St versus Tormey St cricket matches. I remember Dad being confused about the strange game of AFL and wanting his boy to play soccer, and cheering from the sidelines during my stint at the North Reservoir soccer club. I remember coming to love that strange game from the moment, downstairs on a fuzzy black-and-white television, I watched my beloved team, the mighty Tigers, thrash Collingwood in the 1980 grand final. It was a journey that led me to play VFA footy, firstly with Coburg—incidentally under the tutelage of Phil Cleary, a former member of this parliament—and later with the Oakleigh football club.

My football days are over and in my middle age I have discovered other pursuits—the joy of surfing, along with my colleague Senator Whish-Wilson; I cycle when I can; I play a bit of golf; I enjoy the odd game of cricket. When I do roll the arm over it is with the Deans Marsh Swamp Rats who, like many country sporting teams right around regional Australia, are an integral part of the local community. My experience is no different from that of many Australians. It is why we make sport a priority in public policy. The Commonwealth spends over $170 million each year on elite sports through the Australian Institute of Sport, and Australia is famous around the world as a sporting nation. Despite being a small country we are consistently near the top of the Olympic medal tally. Over the years we have been world champions at cricket, we have led the tennis world and we now have an Australian golfing champion in Adam Scott. We have come mighty close to beating the world's best in the game of soccer.

I understand that some people worry that we are a nation that is too obsessed with sport and that this obsession overshadows more important, more noble pursuits such as the arts and sciences.

Senator Xenophon: Sport is noble.

Senator DI NATALE: Yes, sport is noble and participation in sport brings many good things, such as the tremendous health benefits of physical activity and learning to work in a team environment and to respect rules and the umpire's final decision. Sport is a great leveller. It does not matter who you are or where you come from, sport brings people together to share in the sheer joy of it. That is not to say that we cannot do better to resource and recognise the great achievements of our artists or our scientists. We can and should do both. After all, it was the Greeks who gave us the marathon and the Olympics along with Aristotle, medicine and the foundations of our modern democracy.

Because Australians love sport so passionately, it is big business. Our major sporting codes such as Australian rules football and rugby league have billion-dollar television deals. The Collingwood Football Club alone recorded a profit of almost $8 million last year. The huge profits and increasing professionalism of our major sporting codes have their downsides. Personally, I could do without the hype associated with going to a game of football—overseas imports such as home and away jumpers that change each year just to bring in more revenue and breaks in play being filled with a blast of music over loudspeakers. I find it more than a trifle irritating, and sports like AFL are such great tests of strength, athleticism and endurance that they do not need those sorts of embellishments to survive.

There has been another much more important, more insidious and more corrosive change to our major sporting codes in recent years. It is now virtually impossible to watch any major sporting contest in this country without being urged to bet on the outcome either during the advertising breaks or by commentators during the event. Statistics reinforce the size and scope of the problem. Online betting, of which sports betting is a major component, has risen from $2.4 billion in 2007 to almost $10 billion in 2012. It is estimated that billions more are wagered by Australians on unregulated, offshore gambling sites.

Until recently gambling was over there; it was the domain of bookies and horse racing; it was done in pokie venues and casinos. But now it is over here; it is everywhere; it is playing an increasing role in our major codes. Because of the potential for harm, there are serious questions to be answered about just how much we want gambling to be part of sport.

I accept that having a bet is part of Australian culture and betting on sport is an enjoyable activity for many people, but for those who become problem gamblers it can be incredibly destructive. It has become increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to avoid repeated exposure to betting advertisements and gambling odds when watching sport. The number of sports betting ads on free-to-air TV quadrupled in the last two years. In 2012, there were 528 different ads collectively broadcast more than 20,000 times.

There has also been a blurring of the line between commentary and advertising when it comes to gambling. The recent inclusion of a certain ubiquitous bookmaker, who is now appearing on the ground during rugby league coverage, has caused outrage amongst sports fans. Fans of all sports have noticed a growing link between sports and gambling companies. At best, they find it irritating; at worst, they worry about the impact it will have on their kids. This barrage of ads is making parents worried about whether a day at the footy or turning on the rugby is still an appropriate family activity.

A recent inquiry by the Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform looked into the issue. We heard some disturbing evidence. For instance, researchers who interviewed children found that advertising is working on them. Kids can name two or three sports betting companies, those companies whose advertisements they have seen hundreds of times. I have personally heard from parents who have had children write odds onto their own artwork depicting the footy or quote odds before a match. Let us remember this is a product aimed strictly at adults. But the fact that it is worming its way into the consciousness of children has many people worried, including me. I want my kids to be collecting footy cards, not recounting the odds of their favourite player winning the Brownlow Medal.

Gambling is not a harmless product. It is fun for some, but problem gambling costs the community dearly. It destroys lives. It leaves kids unfed, it breaks marriages and homes are lost. For a product with this potential for harm there is a very clear role for government to regulate. I do not propose a ban. I think it is perfectly appropriate that an activity that is so popular remains legal. Banning it would just drive it to unregulated markets overseas or to black markets onshore, leaving those sports open to corruption.

On the other hand, not regulating it could lead us down a dangerous road. If we do not act now, gambling will become so enmeshed in sport that we will never again separate the two. That can only have one consequence: more problem gamblers. We have tried self-regulation. Nearly two years ago the government gave an ultimatum to the industry regarding the repetition of live odds during sports: 'Either sort yourselves out and curb the practice or the government will act.' A year later, they reached an agreement and broadcasters have since publicised updates to their codes of conduct. These new codes are comical when compared to the extent of the problem. Promotion can continue as before during scheduled breaks; there will still be live betting odds; and, worse still, there is nothing stopping bookmakers and betting company representatives appearing during commentary sections of the broadcast.

These codes do not fix the problem. They allow the nexus between televised sport and gambling to continue its current trajectory—more exposure, more linking, more problem gambling, betting becoming an integral part of the game. The scope of the problem and the path we are on raise real potential for harm to children. We are still gathering evidence but it seems obvious that kids for whom gambling has become a normalised part of life are more likely to gamble later in life. That has been the experience of other harmful products such as tobacco. They will gamble and gamble heavily. Problem gambling behaviour is the inevitable result. That is why the time has come for this parliament to step in, to do something to curb this harm.

The motion before the chamber lists several important reforms that will help mitigate this potential harm. They are simple steps. They will not place an undue burden on industry but will start to disentangle gambling from sport. We must stop the brainwashing of children. Children are not the ostensible targets of gambling ads. The industry claims that they are not trying to recruit new customers from among their ranks. So it is right that children be the first priority of new reforms.

One obvious reform to prevent the over-exposure of children to these ads is to limit the times at which they may be broadcast. The loophole that allows gambling ads to be broadcast at any time of the day, so long as they are part of a sports broadcast, must be closed. How would we feel if gambling ads popped up during morning cartoons—next to the ads for Barbie dolls and Coco Pops? We would not accept it. But this is the situation we have now when it comes to the broadcast of live sport. The proposal to ban gambling ads before 9 pm is therefore a sensible one. Adults will still see the ads—the industry can continue to advertise—but the number of children exposed to these ads will be significantly reduced.

The broadcast of live odds is one of the most intrusive ways for sports betting companies to promote their service. It is an inducement to gamble right then and there. As I said before, these numbers are noticed by children, many of whom now think that it is just part of the way the game works. There is no reason we should allow this barrage of numbers to continue. Sports betting companies can tell us to have a punt, but they do not need to be listing the odds to do it. So we should stop this practice completely.

The other important and necessary reform is to end so-called 'cash for comment'. The development that has generated the most outrage with sports fans is the inclusion of bookies as part of the editorial team. It must be a lucrative business, because the reaction of fans to the appearance of Tom Waterhouse on the rugby league broadcast was astonishing, It unleashed a torrent of fury. The goodwill this has cost the broadcasters and the sporting code is enormous. Many people have expressed their outrage to me personally and the social media light up any time this happens.

The broadcasters have contended that, by changing the logo on Tom Waterhouse's microphone, the distinction between commentator and sponsor is now crystal clear. But, for a young kid watching a game of footy, Tom Waterhouse the bookmaker is no different from Tom Waterhouse the commentator. When I saw a photograph of Mr Waterhouse signing kids' jerseys after a match, I have to say that was the last straw. The intent of the code is to separate commentary from betting—to separate the commentators from the bookmakers. But children are not equipped to make that distinction. How could they if that sort of sporting broadcast is all they have ever known? It comes on top of the constant repetition of sports betting brand names at every opportune moment in the commentary. We have to stop this practice and we have to start talking about the sport instead of the betting.

The time has come for this parliament to take action. We can very easily legislate to stop this bombardment of betting odds. We can very easily legislate to close the loophole that lets ads run when kids are most likely to be watching. We need to turn sport back over to the experts, to the sports tragics and to the fans and not give it over to the bookmakers and the spruikers.

We are at a crossroad when it comes to sport. If we do not act now, a trip to the footy ground will soon be like a trip to the racetrack. We have the opportunity to take action. These are simple reforms, they are necessary reforms and they are popular reforms. With the stroke of a pen, we can let the sport do the talking and not the bookmakers. By passing legislation to implement these reforms, the parliament would be setting us back on the path to preserving the sports we love.