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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13696


Mr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (12:48): The National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and related bills, which I strongly support, have been a long time coming. It is worth going through some of the history, particularly as I am following the member for Kooyong. Uncharacteristically for him, his contribution provided more heat than light in explaining the problem and the legislation before the House.

Problem gambling is real and the weight of evidence about the incidence of problem gambling in this country is indisputable. It is true that many Australians enjoy a punt—I am one of them. But it is equally true that gambling is different for the close to half a million Australians who are either at risk of becoming problem gamblers or who already are. For them, their family and their friends, it is no longer about enjoying a punt. They have an addiction. They have a problem.

It has been estimated that the social cost of problem gambling is somewhere in the vicinity of $4.7 billion a year. On average, problem gamblers lose somewhere in the vicinity of $21,000 per year. For anybody, perhaps with the exception of the high rollers of this world, $21,000 a year is a hell of a lot of money. It is money which could be spent on groceries, a new musical instrument for one of the kids, a pair of footy boots or netball shoes, sending kids to school or paying down the family mortgage. Instead, this money, in the vast majority of cases, is being fed into a poker machine and feeding the problem gambler's addiction.

The member for Kooyong, in his fiery contribution, suggested that this parliament was somehow rushing into consideration of this legislation—political amnesia on his part. Like me, he participated in the first inquiry the 43rd Parliament had into the issue of problem gambling and the proposal to introduce mandatory precommitment. If my memory serves me correctly, we visited most of the mainland capitals, as well as Tasmania and other places in between. There were more than 10 to 15 days of public hearings. A weighty report was then considered and debated in this House.

That was neither the first or the last parliamentary inquiry into this technology, nor was it the first or the last inquiry into the proposal to introduce mandatory precommitment. In 2009, the government commissioned the Productivity Commission to conduct an inquiry into problem gambling and its causes, and to propose some solutions. It is the Productivity Commission's recommendation which forms the heart of this legislation before the House. It is true that, upon the conclusion of the 2010 election, the Prime Minister, in good faith, entered into an agreement with the member for Denison in an attempt to deal with both the recommendations of the Productivity Commission and the member for Denison's very real concerns about problem gambling—concerns which are shared, I would have thought, by every right-thinking member in this place.

The heart of that agreement was to put in place the recommendations of the Productivity Commission. It is true that we were unable to implement each and every one of the provisions of that agreement. The sole cause of that lies with those on the other side of the House. It is galling to hear the member for Kooyong and others like him point the finger at this side of the chamber for failing to implement each of the items in the agreement. It is like mugging somebody on the way to the shops and then complaining because they have not come home with the groceries. The sole reason the legislation could not get through the House was that those on the other side said consistently, from the beginning to the end, irrespective of what the evidence was, that they would oppose it. There is a name for that sort of behaviour, there is a name that we give to people who make the sorts of speeches that have just been made by the member for Kooyong, but unfortunately such language is unparliamentary.

At the heart of this legislation is the proposition to enable mandatory precommitment. Mandatory precommitment is a form of technology new in this country but it is based on a very old notion—a notion known by psychologists and economists alike as the Ulysses pact. According to Greek legend, Ulysses was desperate to hear the dulcet tones of the sirens but he knew that exposing himself to the sound of their songs and the vision of the sirens would lead him and his sailors to a terrible death on the rocks. As a remedy, he instructed his sailors to put wax plugs in their ears and to tie him to the mast. He told his sailors not to remove the plugs from their ears and not to untie him from the mast at any cost. That enabled him to sail through the straits and listen to the beautiful songs of the sirens without putting either him or his crew in peril. It was, in effect, a promise to himself to guard against future behaviour which he knew would ruin him—a Ulysses pact. That is at the heart of the precommitment technology.

Nothing could be further from the concept of Big Brother coming in here and telling individuals how to spend their money when we in a free country exercise our own choices on how to spend our money, but it provides punters with a tool to make a present promise to themselves to guard against their future behaviour. Each and every one of those poker machines, after the introduction and full implementation of this legislation, will enable a punter, a poker machine user, to make a promise to themselves about how much money they are willing and able to lose. How much money they are willing and able to lose will be in their control, giving the individual control over how much money they spend and how much money they are willing to lose on a poker machine. When you look at it from that perspective, you would think it was a proposition entirely consistent with Liberal Party philosophy—give the individual the power to choose how they spend their money and the tools with which they can do that. That is at the heart of mandatory precommitment.

We understand it is not a simple matter to provide the thousands and thousands of poker machines in clubs, pubs and casinos with the capacity to do this overnight, which is why we have put in the legislation a timeline that will enable the phase-in of this proposition. New machines manufactured or imported by the end of 2013 must be capable of supporting this precommitment technology. All gaming machines must be a part of a state-wide precommitment system that enables the display of electronic warnings. By 2016, if you are locked in the fury of play, the machine will have to provide some dynamic warning about how much money you have spent and how long you have been playing. We are putting in place longer implementation timelines for smaller venues. In addition, we have put in place a provision that there be a $250-a-day automatic teller machine withdrawal limit. Of course this is not the first case of ATM withdrawal limits in venues which have poker machines—Victoria has already done that. As far as I can see, when that legislation was introduced the sky did not fall in. The sky is still hovering safely above Victoria.

These are all important measures and they deserve the support of every member of this place. There has been some opposition to the provisions, and we have attempted to engage with the industry. I am pleased to say that after some fiery exchanges over the last two years the clubs association has said that clubs support the introduction of voluntary precommitment technology, and we welcome that. Over recent days a furious campaign has been waged by the Australian Hotels Association, and I have found this curious both in its content and its philosophy. A press release from the Victorian branch of the Australian Hotels Association dated 2 December 2011 states:

AHA (Vic) supports the policy of the Baillieu Government to implement a voluntary pre-commitment (VPC) on all gaming machines in Victoria.

That is right—they support the policy of the Baillieu government to do this. The AHA goes on:

Whilst the announced implementation timeframe of 2015/16 is challenging in itself having regard to the required technological development and implementation over a relatively short period of time, such developed and implementation will also be appearing in the period up to and following the August 2012 adoption of the venue owner/operator model of gaming.

They say they are challenged by it but they will be able to meet the requirements—although, apparently, what is a only a challenge and can be done in Victoria is something that is going to make the sky fall in over hotels around the rest of the country.

I fully support the rights and, indeed, the need of businesses like hotels in this country to form a union, to associate with each other and to be able to negotiate, organise and run a hard argument. But it will require them to be consistent, and the sort of stuff that is coming out of the AHA at the moment, regrettably, I would say, is falling a little bit short of the mark.

I return to the point I made at the beginning of my contribution. We have a big problem with problem gambling in this country. We need to do something about it. The various parliamentary committees that have inquired into this matter have heard submission after submission from problem gamblers, who are looking to this parliament and parliaments around the country to act—to act decisively, on the basis of the evidence—and to ensure that we are not creating another generation of problem gamblers in this country. We are not standing here saying that the voluntary precommitment technology will solve all problem gambling; but it will go a long way towards ensuring that we do not create another generation of problem gamblers. I commend the legislation to the House.