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Thursday, 28 June 2001
Page: 28995

Mr BARTLETT (12:47 AM) —For some time it has been recognised that Australia has a problem with gambling. We are not talking about the desire for the occasional friendly bet. We know that Australians will bet on anything—on the proverbial two flies crawling up a wall. We quite happily boast a horse race that stops the nation each November, or the traditional Anzac two-up game. These have become part of our tradition. But it is a far cry from these to problem gambling, to the addictive gambling from which some people just cannot escape: the obsessive, irrational behaviour that creates so much misery, that sees a small number of people mindlessly chained all day to a poker machine, that diverts money from essentials to feeding the insatiable desire to gamble, that sees the pay packet devoured by a master that never repays the favour, that leaves lives broken, families destitute and relationships destroyed.

It is estimated that Australia has some 290,000 problem gamblers. According to the 1999 Productivity Commission report, this makes us a world leader in the problem gambling stakes—not an area of leadership that we can be proud of. Australia has roughly 20 per cent of the world's poker machines, for instance.

Mr BARTLETT —The 290,000 problem gamblers in Australia, those whose lives are seriously affected, comprise 2.1 per cent of the adult population. They comprise around 15 per cent of regular gamblers. Problem gamblers lose a staggering $3½ billion a year; that is roughly a third of the $11 billion annual gambling market. Each problem gambler loses an average of $12,000 a year, money which could obviously be better spent meeting the other essentials of life. For most individuals and families, these losses are totally unaffordable and unsustainable. Studies suggest that 80 per cent of Australia's problem gamblers are on annual incomes of $40,000 or less and, with an average loss of $12,000 a year for a family earning less than $40,000, that really is an unaffordable and unsustainable loss. Something must be done about this problem and, with this bill, the government is making a serious attempt—

Mr Snowdon —At what?

Mr BARTLETT —to do so to protect the vulnerable from even greater problems, despite the interjections from the other side. The advent and proliferation of new interactive technologies greatly exacerbate the problem by making gambling services far more accessible. The Productivity Commission report on gambling found clear evidence of a link between accessibility of gambling and the incidence of problem gambling. The link is obvious. If you are an addictive gambler, if you cannot help it and gambling is readily available, it is no surprise that you will be more likely to have a bet or two—or a lot more.

For many, the ubiquitous availability of poker machines and the ready access to a growing number of casinos has generated addiction far more easily than the occasional or even regular visit to a TAB. The advent of interactive online gambling increases accessibility even further. The home provides the ultimate in accessibility, potentially making it a virtual casino. As the Productivity Commission found, interactive technologies provide a `quantum leap in accessibility' to gambling. This is particularly the case with electronic gaming, which has an addictive quality of its own, with the almost hypnotic nature of interactive electronic games involving repeatedly hitting the button.

The other problem with gambling on the Net is the appeal to a new younger market of computer savvy gamblers. We have all seen kids playing computer games, stuck at the screen for hours and unable to tear themselves away. Add to that the allure of financial gains, and there is a serious potential to create a new generation of problem gamblers. A recent report of the American Psychiatric Association warned that young people, many of whom have access to credit cards, are particularly susceptible because they use the Internet more than any other age group does. I will just read a couple of paragraphs from that recent report about the potential impact of interactive gambling on young people. It reads:

... Internet gambling, unlike many other types of gambling activity, is a solitary activity, which makes it even more dangerous: people can gamble uninterrupted and undetected for unlimited periods of time. Regular or heavy users of the Internet have been found more likely to participate in Internet gambling than other users.

... ... ...

... there is evidence that the rate of gambling problems is rising among young people. One significant hazard is that many online games sites— which target children and teens—have direct links to gambling sites. Many of these sites offer “freebies” and other supposed discounts to get young people started.

It goes on to say:

The National Gambling Impact Study Commission recommended that Congress ban all Internet gambling in the United States because of the difficulties in regulating the fairness and safety of the process. To date, no such action has been taken. Until it is, young people should be especially aware of the dangers of Internet gambling, and other forms of gambling as well.

The potential is there for this to create a real problem, particularly for young people. It is these dangers which must be reduced. This extra dimension of accessibility magnifies the potential losses. This government is determined to take a strong stand to prevent the advent of new technology leading to a proliferation in gambling addiction. It is a pity that the opposition is opposed to this. The contrast could not be clearer: the coalition government is willing to do what needs to be done to address serious social problems, yet Kim Beazley and the Labor Party show, yet again, that they are unwilling or unable to make the important decisions—again, from the other side a serious lack of leadership.

What does this bill do? It limits the growth of problem gambling by preventing access to online casino style gaming—interactive gaming. It limits accessibility to new interactive gambling sources which have the real potential for a massive leap in the accessibility of gambling, in the level of gambling and in the addiction to gambling and its commensurate losses.

An important distinction needs to be made. This legislation does not prevent the use of the Internet to place bets on external events such as sporting events, horse races or even lotteries—bets which could be placed over the phone. It does not prevent normal wagering activities. What it does attempt to prevent is gaming—that is, repetitive style gambling and casino type games online. The difference is quite clear and it is related to the potential damage and the potential for addiction—that potential which Labor refuses to acknowledge. One is related to external events which are episodic in nature and over whose frequency the punter has no control. The other is related largely to self-generated events: to events which can be reproduced time and time and time again by the click of a mouse—the repetitive casino type games or the very repetitive events such as ball by ball wagering.

That is the distinction. We are trying to prevent those activities that are repeated time and time again largely at the will of the punter and therefore leading, with addiction, to enormous potential losses. These are the areas that present the possibility to the gambler of repetitive and uncontrolled betting and therefore repetitive and uncontrolled losing. The potential is there for people to lose massive amounts from their own living room; to lose massive amounts at the click of a mouse, without having to wait for the next race or the next football game; to conceivably lose their house without even leaving it. That is what this government is trying to stop. That is what this government is doing something about, and yet that is what Labor is willing to ignore—to ignore despite the massive losses, to ignore despite the social cost and to ignore despite the potential that it has to magnify the misery of addictive gambling.

How will this legislation work? Firstly, it will prohibit the provision of interactive online gambling services to people physically resident in Australia. Most importantly, this ban applies to all casino style gambling and to electronic forms of other instant repetitive games such as electronic scratchies. This prohibits the provision of these types of gambling through the Internet, the mobile Internet, digital TV and datacasting. Importantly, the onus will be on the gambling service provider and not the Internet service providers so as not to impede the IT industry itself yet still achieve the same effective limit to the growth of interactive gambling. Further, all interactive gambling service providers will be required to identify Australian players and prevent their access to prohibited gambling services. This can be achieved quite simply by the use of `trace route' software which establishes the location of the user's computer. Some interactive service providers already use this type of software. Secondly, the advertising of gaming services on broadcast media, in print publication, on billboards and on the Internet will be prohibited in order to limit the access of foreign gambling service providers to the Australian market. Further, advertising will be prohibited on sites aimed at an Australian audience where they contain paid links to Internet gaming sites. This will limit the take-up by Australians. Thirdly, overseas gaming service providers will be guilty of an offence if they provide online gaming services to residents in Australia.

No law is ever 100 per cent effective and this may not be 100 per cent effective either, but it will be a very big step in the right direction. It will substantially limit access to interactive gambling and is far more effective than Labor's cop-out. Labor's excuse is, `It won't totally stop interactive gambling; therefore, we won't go along with it. We'll pretend that it's not a problem.' The point is that it will be effective in limiting the growth of addictive gambling. The opposition are happy to criticise and to sit on their hands and do nothing with the excuse that this will not be 100 per cent effective. If I could just refer to what the Reverend Tim Costello said about this in an article in the Age a couple of months back:

Social policy should never be dictated by an all-or-nothing approach, and this is why this ban, even if only 80 per cent successful, may save many in the web-smart next generation from being fodder for a ravenous gambling industry.

This is exactly the point. If we can limit the growth of dangerous, addictive online gambling, then it is worth us going down this path. You can always find excuses for doing nothing, and Labor are masters of that. Their excuse is that a regulatory approach would be better, yet it is obvious that regulatory approaches do not work. A draft model for regulation was drawn up in 1997 but never agreed to by the states and territories. Why? Because they are so dependent on gambling revenue that they will never go down that path. Yet Labor are somehow pretending that this might work. There was a regulatory approach in 1955 when poker machines came in, and now they are everywhere—we are drowning under a sea of poker machines.

The second argument Labor use is that it is not online gambling but the pokies that is the problem. It is true that currently poker machines are the biggest problem, but the Commonwealth does not have direct or express control over poker machines. The other point is that the rapid growth is in interactive gambling, which may soon take over from poker machines. In fact, Peter Gilooley, a member of the Australian Gaming Council and a former head of Tattersall's, estimates that within 10 years interactive gambling will equal the entire Tattersall's business if it is not controlled. In the US, they are estimating that interactive gambling will treble within the next three years, from four million users to 15 million users, if not controlled; and that over the five years from 1998 to 2003 the amount lost on the Internet will have increased almost tenfold, from $651 million to $6.3 billion.

Labor's approach is even worse. They say, `We will develop some guidelines. We will get around to it some day. We will develop some principles, but we will get nowhere.' Labor's approach is a sad joke. Even the New South Wales Premier said that he supported the federal government's ban. Labor's approach is to do nothing, sit on their hands and hope the problem will go away. The bottom line is this: we have a serious social problem and we have the potential to do something about it before the technology makes it much worse. The coalition is willing to do something. The opposition is not willing to do anything. Who is making the responsible decisions which are in Australia's best interest?