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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13702

Mr BANDT (Melbourne) (13:16): I rise to speak on the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012. It is not a moment too soon for this federal parliament to be addressing the harm of poker machines. Pokies have wrought destruction on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians. They are manufactured by an industry that has spent literally billions of dollars engineering their product to be as addictive and as profitable as possible. They are operated by an industry that is addicted to the money siphoned off from problem gamblers and will stop at nothing to protect that revenue.

Australians are the world's most prolific gamblers. We spend an impressive $1,200 per capita every year on wagers. Of the $19 billion gambled by Australians every year, 60 per cent, or $12 billion, goes into the pokies. About 600,000 people—four per cent of the adult population—play these pokies at least weekly. It is not hard to find a venue to play. There are over 200,000 poker machines in Australia, of which approximately 50 per cent are in New South Wales alone. We have the seventh highest number of these machines in the world, which is alarming given our relatively small population. There is abundant evidence that gambling, especially pokies, causes enormous harm in the community. Up to 15 per cent of the people who gamble weekly are considered problem gamblers. Forty per cent of the revenue that goes through these machines can be attributed to these same poor souls. This means that they are often losing $30,000, $40,000 or $50,000 a year or more. This has terrible consequences for their lives and the lives of their families. The harm this causes the community is enormous. As money is taken out of family budgets the social costs add up, and are estimated by the Productivity Commission at $4.7 billion per year. The problem is now out of control. Significant reform is needed to curb the harm done by the pokies to our community.

It is not news that gambling causes harm in Australia. The Productivity Commission conducted a detailed examination of Australia's gambling industries, and handed down their findings in February 2010. After detailing the litany of harms caused by gambling and pokies in particular, they made a series of recommendations for reform. One of the prime causes of harm is the speed with which it is possible to lose money on Australian poker machines. The Productivity Commission report focused on this intensity of gaming machines, measured in expected losses per hour. In states where a $10 maximum bet applies and the spin rate is unregulated, such as in New South Wales, one could expect to lose $1,200 per hour with significantly higher losses possible. In some jurisdictions the losses could be even greater. In Crown Casino, just over the river from my electorate, there are even machines that allow $50 per button push. The ability to lose such large amounts of money in a short period heightens the risk for people with a gambling problem, or who are at risk of developing one. These high-intensity machines can be contrasted with the machines where hourly losses are limited to ranges consistent with other forms of entertainment.

At the present time in Australia there are no low-intensity machines where bets are restricted to ranges consistent with normal recreational play. This contrasts with other jurisdictions around the world, such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom, where certain venues are restricted to machines with limits on the maximum stake and maximum prize. In the United States, high-intensity machines are generally limited to casinos. Here, they can be found just around the corner in most towns and suburbs.

Poker machines also have a terrible record when it comes to social justice. Just look at the maps of where the concentration of poker machine losses are highest. It is the same map as areas of social disadvantage. The people losing the most on pokies are those who can least afford it. Because of the ubiquity of the machines and the extent of the harm, there is now enormous pressure for reform. Until now, the states have had jurisdiction over poker machines. It is welcome that we here in the federal parliament are discussing what we can do to ensure that there is federal regulation.

The Greens support this bill because it a step in the right direction. We maintain that the case is solid that the poker machine industry needs a major overhaul. This bill does not accomplish that but, hopefully, it will make future reforms easier. The bill will require all machines sold in Australia from the end of next year to support precommitment. In the future, every poker machine, old and new, will have to support a pre-commitment scheme. That means that voluntary precommitment will be possible. More importantly it means that, if a future government wants to return to the reform this government has left lying on the table, enabling mandatory precommitment will be a simple matter. It also requires all machines to be part of statewide networks so that precommitment will be effective once enacted. This opens the door to other potential reforms as well.

The bill creates a national gambling regulator. While its functions are to be delegated to the states for the time being, this precedent gives further hope that the parliament or a future government will have the tools it needs to tackle problem gambling once and for all. The regulator has the power to place a levy on poker machines, another tool to signal reform. There is an ATM limit of $250 a day. In Victoria it is zero, but at least this is a step in the right direction. If the trial of mandatory precommitment in the ACT goes ahead, this also provides for a Productivity Commission analysis of the results. We do need to see more research, and that is why this reform will also see the establishment of the National Gambling Research Centre. The Greens asked for this in order to keep the issue of problem gambling on the policy radar. The more research there is, the harder it will be for industry to derail future reforms. Finally, the clubs do not like this reform, and that is hopefully a sign that it will achieve something.

This bill does not go as far as it should. With the issues of pokies and problem gambling front and centre on the national agenda, we in this parliament had a rare opportunity to make a bold reform, but the government squibbed it. Sadly, this bill is not that reform. After the provisions in this bill have been implemented, a poker machine addict who sits down at the machine will have no help in limiting their losses. They will not be forced to set a limit, putting a fence around the rent and grocery money before they get carried away chasing losses. There are no bet limits slowing down the rate of losses, giving a gambler time to sober up and go home before the losses have mounted up to unsustainable levels. There are other places where the reform could be more ambitious. As I mentioned before, the withdrawal limit on ATMs could also be stronger. In my home state of Victoria, we have banned ATM withdrawals altogether and the sky certainly has not fallen in. There are other solutions that we will continue to argue for.

It is important to recognise that Australia's poker machines are not benign games for passers-by to have a $10 flutter on. They are carefully engineered to absorb enormous amounts of money. Some of these machines can churn through thousands of dollars in a single hour. Australia's 'casino style' machines are infamous around the world. Many experts and plenty of solid research have pointed to the need to rein in these machines. The research says that high-intensity machines with the possibility of large but infrequent wins have taken the gambling experience far away from the low-risk recreational activity it used to be.

The Productivity Commission recommended changes to the way these machines operate, such as offering 'low-intensity' machines with $1 bet limits that only take $20 credit at a time, as well as mandatory precommitment for high-intensity machines whereby users specify a loss limit before gambling on pokies. The Greens endorse this research. Limiting machines to $1 per spin and lowering jackpots will mean problem gamblers will only be losing hundreds an hour, not thousands. Limiting machines to lower intensities is a simple reform that will not affect recreational players. It will help problem gamblers limit their losses. We propose nothing more than taking claims that poker machines provide entertainment at face value. This change would bring machines more into line with other forms of recreation and would do so over a time frame that is realistic and fair to industry.

Industry's reaction to these proposed reforms from the Greens has been a mix of outrage and bullying. They claim bet limits and mandatory precommitment will not work. They also claim it will kill local clubs. Precommitment cards would amount to a 'license to punt', they say. They say it is the nanny state gone mad. In particular, the industry suggests the costs to move to this system would be astronomical, up to $5 billion. These numbers have of course been sharply contested. But in any case, without the need for a hardware solution, and with sufficient time for existing machines to fully depreciate, the cost to industry would be minimal compared to the value of the machines and the revenue they generate. These machines make billions of dollars each year in profits. The costs to industry to implement this policy in fact would be negligible. All machines in Australia already support bet limits and the time frames involved would be more than adequate to upgrade or replace any machines that needed modification.

But it is clear that we are not going to get that kind of reform here, because there has been a distinct lack of courage. So, left with this or nothing, the Greens will support this bill. It creates some precedents that should make future reform easier, if there is a government with the foresight and the guts to tackle it. This watered-down bill is the result of intense lobbying by the pokies industry, but they are still not satisfied. They will not be satisfied with anything but free rein to take as much money as they can out of disadvantaged communities. So, although the reform could be bolder, we need to move ahead with it. But it must not be the last word in poker machine reform.

Problem gamblers need the help of this parliament. Problem gambling on the pokies can be a wrecking ball through the life of a family. It can cost a marriage, a job, the family home. It can and does drive people to crime and there are clear public health and social justice imperatives to tackling pokies reform. The cost to the wider community is also well known. It costs this country billions each year. Poker machines have been carefully engineered by the industry to be highly addictive, to disguise losses as wins and to efficiently empty the pockets of their customers.

Many in the community have worked hard to push us to gambling reform. The churches have worked hard on behalf of their members, including those who work with people whose lives have been ruined by the pokies. They are at the coalface and they deserve applause for their work in this area. Academic experts also want to see reform, and they are the ones who have quantified these harms and informed the debate. And the punters affected by problem gambling want to see it too. We have heard from them time and time again about the toll it has taken on their lives and that they want help. I therefore commend the bill, but I sincerely and desperately hope that there is more to come sometime soon.