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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13698


Mr ALEXANDER (Bennelong) (13:01): I rise to speak on the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and cognate bills, and to express my concern that these bills represent a failed attempt to deal effectively with a serious social problem. The gravest outcome of the enactment of these bills will be that this issue of problem gambling will be taken off the political agenda for several years until finally, after data has been collected and analysed and a review committee has written a report, the government of the day will say that these changes did nothing to reduce the incidence of problem gambling.

I wish to make it clear: I am not pro gambling. I certainly do not believe that people who suffer from a gambling addiction should be ignored. As with any addiction, these people need support from their community—not to be demonised or labelled a problem.

Even though the member for Denison said in his speech earlier that I am likely to go to hell for opposing these bills, I greatly respect his efforts and have no doubt that his sincerity is absolute when it comes to using the opportunity of his position to legislate change in this important area. He did a deal with the Prime Minister to support her in return for genuine action on this issue. One year later, the Prime Minister welshed on that deal, showing a lack of sincerity about acting on gambling reform and showing that a written, signed agreement is of no value. However, the scandal surrounding the Health Services Union and the member for Dobell led to a change in the numbers and, suddenly, the Prime Minister was forced to do something on gambling reform to win back the support of the member for Denison. Subsequently, we have been left with this transparent attempt at legislation that will achieve very little in resolving addiction but requires compliance measures that will present a major thorn in the side of club and hotel operators.

Gambling is seen by many as a bit of an Aussie right. Our history books take us back as far as 1798, when the game two-up was played by convicts—a game that has become entrenched in our Anzac tradition. We now have wide-ranging gambling opportunities. Through an increased range of electronic devices, you can now gamble from your phone, from your office or from your car if you are hands-free. Yet the Productivity Commission has estimated that more than 99.4 per cent of Australia's population do not have a gambling addiction. So we are then presented with the question: what can we as policymakers do to provide the support and assistance needed by the remaining 0.6 per cent of Australians?

Some may think that the answer to this question is the development of targeted support programs or perhaps the implementation of evidence based solutions proven to reduce the incidence of problem gambling. Instead, the answer we have here in these bills is to treat 100 per cent of Australians as problem gamblers. On a personal level I might not play poker machines or Keno, or join the weekly poker night at my local pub, but there are many in our society who derive great enjoyment from doing exactly that. For the vast majority, this is a harmless way to wind down at the end of a week, to try their luck and have a bit of fun. For some, however, this pastime has become an addiction. Just like any other kind of addiction, this is a major problem and deserves policy measures that will effectively tackle and prevent the entrenchment and growth of such an addiction. This goal will be supported by additional, better equipped and more effective counselling and support services. A voluntary precommitment scheme like the one already introduced in Victoria may help some of those people to limit their losses, but this is no silver bullet.

As law-makers in this place we must be conscious of the fact that gambling has always been a state power. As a result, each Australian state has its own rules and has developed programs and systems accordingly. Clubs in New South Wales have had electronic gaming machines since 1956—the same year television arrived in Australia. In contrast, no clubs in Western Australia have any pokies. Intervention by the federal parliament in an area traditionally regulated by the states must be as a result of detailed and careful consideration, and based on real evidence.

When you pull back the veneer of these bills you find that they are effectively bills to establish a new tax. We have multiple bills because the legislation is for multiple new taxes. One of the taxes is to recover the costs to the Commonwealth of the administration of these bills. Part of these costs is for the establishment of a new federal bureaucracy to support a new federal gambling regulator. These bills do have a provision for the Commonwealth to delegate the regulatory function to the states and territories, although there is no assurance that the Commonwealth would in fact give up this power.

The funding of this new federal regulator through a new tax is a clever legislative trick to allow the Commonwealth to draw on its taxation powers in the Constitution and therefore avoid claims that federal intervention in gambling is unconstitutional. The other tax is recognition that the Commonwealth cannot actually mandate particular activities in this area. Instead, the government has invented a new big tax that will be paid by anyone who does not comply with the new compliance standards.

The other constitutional power used is a broad interpretation of the corporations power, that any person or company involved in the construction or installation of electronic gaming machines must be a constitutional corporation. The irony of this is not lost on me or my colleagues. It was not long ago that those sitting opposite, who then occupied the opposition benches, complained on a daily basis that the Howard government had overreached in its application of the corporations power in order to enact the Workplace Relations Act, even though this legislation very obviously related directly to the function and conduct of corporations. Five state Labor governments, together with Unions New South Wales and the Australian Workers Union, took this complaint all the way to the High Court in a failed constitutional challenge. Yet here we are with a bill from a Labor government that stretches this interpretation of the Corporations power much further and appears to be sharply at odds with the intention of the writers of the Constitution.

Legal scholars may argue that this extension of the corporations power is in line with the precedence set through judicial interpretation over the past few decades. However, the people we represent do not want to see another expensive legal challenge whereby the taxpayer funded states take on the taxpayer funded Commonwealth, using some of the most expensive legal representatives in the land, to resolve a perceived power grab by the federal parliament. When the Rudd-Gillard government came to office five years ago it was with a fanfare of 'stopping the blame game' and 'working in cooperation with the states'. In this spirit I urge the Commonwealth government to reconsider its strategy on this important social issue.

In 1999 the Howard government established a ministerial council on gambling, which has since been rebadged as the COAG Select Council on Gambling Reform. Membership includes federal, state and territory government Treasurers and ministers with responsibility for gambling regulation. I quote from the families and community services department's website, which was last updated on 30 May 2012:

The Select Council is expected to meet again in the second half of 2011 to continue the work of the Council, including to consider its national response to the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report into Gambling.

The minister may have noticed that we are now debating these bills, which arrived without any consultation with the states, in the final sitting week of 2012. It seems pretty clear that the select council presents a perfect opportunity for the Commonwealth, states and territories to work cooperatively, to stop the blame game and to develop genuine workable policies on gambling reform that can be owned and implemented by all parties to try to help people suffering from a gambling addiction. Instead, we have these bills being rammed through with no consultation, no time for stakeholders to review the individual provisions of the bills, no consideration of whether this will actually achieve the stated goals, no analysis of unintended consequences and no discussion on how these new compliance measures will affect the pubs and clubs that form a big part of our local communities.

In Bennelong we have 17 clubs employing approximately 788 people and with 732 volunteers. These clubs have a total 87,037 members, provide and maintain 41 sporting facilities, make an annual social contribution of $22.46 million and make an annual economic contribution of over $62 million. To put this in perspective, to comply with the government's legislation the 14 clubs in Bennelong that have 21 poker machines or more will have to spend up to $20.4 million, or 90 per cent of the local industry's total annual social contribution. We also have nine hotels employing 252 staff, with 217 gaming machines. These hotels support 75 local community, sporting and social groups; serve around 9,000 meals to patrons each week; and provide an affordable place to socialise and relax.

The North Ryde RSL, together with its amalgamated club, the Eastwood Rugby Union Club, manage Leslie Fields at North Ryde RSL and the three football fields collectively known as TG Millner Field at the Eastwood Rugby Union Club. Many here would recognise this great club as last year's Shute Shield premiers and one of only three teams to have won the shield over the past 13 years.

The Epping Club is part of the Club Grants Scheme and every year gives above the legislated amount to the local community. Their support to community organisations includes $20,000 to The Shack Youth Outreach, a youth drop-in centre that offers disadvantaged youth a safe space and helps them to find work and regain control over their lives, and $10,000 to the Lynne King Cancer Care Foundation, helping people with cancer in the community and in palliative care as well as the families of cancer sufferers.

Ryde Ex-Services Memorial and Community Club, where I celebrated on election night with all my Bennelong supporters, is also a part of the ClubGRANTS scheme and gives about $60,000 to the community each year, well above the legislated amount. Examples of this community support include Christian Community Aid in Eastwood, who run learning classes for seniors and adults, most of which are conducted at the club to avoid the costs of hiring a venue. With many Chinese migrants in the community, this is a great way for people from different ethnic backgrounds to integrate into the local community. The Eastwood Chinese Senior Citizens Association, whom I have regularly joined for community events, is primarily made up of Chinese migrants who do not speak English. The club provides funding for trips, such as a recent adventure to the Blue Mountains, including food and a translator. There is also radio sponsorship on the local Ryde Regional Radio 88.5FM, on which I am a weekly guest, providing support for four young presenters working towards a regular youth radio program.

Ryde Eastwood Leagues Club employs 176 people and has 138 volunteers and 35,000 members, making 1.2 million visits per year. This club alone provides half a million dollars in its annual ClubGRANTS contribution, $6.4 million in annual social contribution and $17.6 million in annual economic contribution. They have a gym and sports facilities, including a swimming pool which provides learn-to-swim programs and rehabilitation. They also sponsor the Balmain-Ryde Eastwood Rugby League Team and the mighty Wests Tigers.

Some of the organisations supported include: Youth Off The Streets, Alzheimer's Australia, Men of League, Christian Community Care, Wheelchair Sports, West Ryde Public School, Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the Children's Medical Research Institute. I have gone through this list to highlight the deep and important connection that our clubs and pubs have to our local community. They do not shy away from the fact that they make a profit along the way, but they also carry a huge amount of social responsibility and are very generous with their support.

It is not a secret that a portion of their revenue is derived from electronic gaming machines and, as I referenced earlier, if there are 20 people in a VIP room playing pokies it is possible that two or three have a gambling problem that requires assistance. As with any policy response, particularly when dealing with a social addiction, there is no silver bullet. Voluntary precommitment is one of a variety of tools available, and the coalition supports this measure as part of a comprehensive policy response to address this complex issue. People with addictions will still be able to set a limit as high as they like, perhaps even subconsciously justifying even greater losses, or they can sit on their couch and access online gambling services far away from the support services supplied by our clubs.

The Productivity Commission tells us that this issue is a complex task for public policy and that the coverage and design of gambling regulation requires particular care to ensure that the benefits exceed the costs. Time expired.