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Wednesday, 28 November 2012
Page: 13759


Mr BILLSON (Dunkley) (17:03): We are discussing the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and related bills today in the parliament. It must be of some interest and some confusion to those who are listening to work through just what is being proposed to the parliament, or in fact foisted upon this parliament, in what should be a matter of considered and thoughtful policy development. These bills in general require that new machines manufactured or imported from the end of 2013 be capable of supporting precommitment declarations or requirements that are issued for the sector. It also aims to ensure that all gaming machines are part of a state-wide precommitment system. This is proposed to be an integrated system, with software and systems available to transfer precommitment levels between venues, and where electronic warnings would appear alerting the user that they are approaching their precommitment levels. That all needs to be good to go by 2016. Smaller venues are being given some slight dispensation on that time frame.

The bill also seeks to impose a limit of $250 a day on ATM withdrawals from gaming venues other than casinos. The bill aims to set up the framework for this precommitment system in order to ensure that gaming machines are compliant with that ambition. It is interesting that this is off the back of a trial that has not actually been concluded—a trial that is in its early days, with no opportunity to draw on any learning or insight that might arise and no evidence base from which to push forward with an expansion of the application of the concepts that are being road-tested in Canberra. It is often remarked that one of the best boosts for Queanbeyan is the fact that this is a trial in Canberra.

These bills also put in place a range of monitoring and investigation capabilities to ensure that compliance with the new requirements can be carried forward. It seeks to set up a regulator to perform these functions and puts in place some enforcement measures, civil penalty orders, infringement notices, injunctions, enforceable undertakings and compliance notices similar to what you see in the competition and consumer law. Also, a new bureaucracy being set up, the federal gambling regulator, and the bills provide for the charging of fees for services—in fact, two new levies to support the package of measures. It is effectively the machinery to create a tax to implement a policy that has not been proven to be effective, based on a trial that has not been concluded to deal with the problem that is not well defined. Other than that it a good piece of policy. But that is the problem: it is not a good piece of policy.

The coalition are particularly concerned about problem gambling and that is why we take an evidence based approach. To the great credit of my friend and colleague Kevin Andrews, the member for Menzies, the shadow minister for family services, we have released a quality discussion paper about gambling reform. This tries to identify the causal factors for the disease that a small percentage in our population have—that is, a gambling problem. So this is not like tobacco, where there is no safe level of consumption. There is a safe level of consumption for gambling, and most people involved in this activity do so in a safe and responsible way. However, there are some who do not.

The point that is made clear, and the point that I hear loud and clear from service providers in my community working with people who have a gambling problem, is that it is not a technology specific issue. It is a disease that plays out in a range of gambling options and gambling technologies. So simply going after one technology—in this case, poker machines—as some kind of antidote to all the gambling temptations that are out there for people who have the disease of a gambling problem highlights how inappropriate and ineffective the measures we are debating today are likely to be.

It has been put to me—and in fact it is a view I subscribe to—that poker machines are probably the most supervised, regulated, observed, controlled and contained kind of gambling that you could have. You have to be dressed. You have to be sober. You are observed. You are using technology that has constraints on its operations. There is a great deal of public interest. There are licensed venues. There are responsibilities and expectations on people to oversee responsible gambling. There are limits on the opportunity with the licensing that surrounds the venues that carry this equipment. This sector of the gambling industry is the most regulated, observed and controlled there is. Yet today we are discussing the Commonwealth reaching further into a sector that is overwhelmingly the responsibility of states and territories while it simply goes, 'La, la, la, la,' and looks away from every other form of gambling that equally occurs to a person with a problem gambling condition.

Let me give you an example. We have seen a burgeoning growth in online, internet gambling—gambling on your phone. You cannot watch an over at the cricket without hearing an ad for an online betting agency. You cannot watch a sports show without it. You cannot even watch a news channel without it. It is popping up everywhere. The point I made as long as five years ago is that in many cases that technology has none of the scrutiny that the poker machine industry is subjected to—none of it. You do not even have to be dressed to do it. You can lose your shirt without putting one on. You can lose your house without even leaving it.

That is an area of gambling that is directly the responsibility of the Commonwealth, yet we do not see any meaningful contribution from this government about something directly within its control. It is known to be the fastest growing area of gambling, reported by two investors in the gaming and gambling sector as being 'the place' where you put your money. It is an area where in the United States, particularly on college campuses and the like, we already see an enormous problem—one that is likely to be coming our way, one that can be managed and addressed if you turn your mind to it. Instead, this government decides to have another go at poker machines.

I have a pecuniary interest to declare: poker machines bore me witless, I am sorry to say. I find little charm in a poker machine. But I know some people enjoy them and for them it is an entertainment option and for many it is a part of the way they relax. That is fine. I also have another pecuniary interest: I did gamble on Melbourne Cup day. I took the wise counsel of my wife, who heard from one of her patients that they were onto a sure thing. Last time I looked, the horse was still running. I did my dough. It was a fun flutter, one day a year, so I am not heavily engaged in gambling.

So I step back from it and watch what is happening. I listen to the dedicated service providers in my community who say, 'Bruce, it's like alcohol—if it's not one type of beer or spirits, they will find it somewhere else.' This is what I keep hearing about gambling, problem gambling and how we need to tackle it. That is why this excellent paper my friend and colleague Kevin Andrews has produced, launched by the opposition leader, says you have to take a person centric focus to problem gambling. It is the person who has the challenge, the disease. That is the issue we need to turn our minds to addressing, not a particular mode of gambling, not one style of technology, not one part of the broad range of opportunities for those people at risk to get themselves into trouble and do further harm at a personal, financial and often a family level.

That is what is so troubling about this debate today. The Commonwealth is venturing into a space which is already very carefully regulated by the states and territories, trying to make this the Commonwealth's business when the business that is the Commonwealth's is seemingly too hard, too difficult for the government to turn its mind to addressing. But we have seen this before. Remember former Prime Minister Rudd, before he took the gamble and lost on his numbers. He had the war on gambling—same thing. It was all about poker machines, all about Canberra telling the state and territory governments what they should be doing without looking at its own patch, its own responsibility and the opportunities to address this within a particularly fast growing area of gambling and gaming.

So here we are with a policy that has not been tested because the trial has not been concluded, involving technology we have already heard cannot possibly be rolled out within the time frames prescribed in this legislation, imposing a governance arrangement over the top of the states and territories which looks to systems integration that has not even been put in place. We are requiring an investment in precommitment technology even though the government has not concluded its voluntary trial nor sought to see what opportunities there are with those already providing poker machines and how they might expand their own systems, technologies and loyalty schemes to pick up such an idea. Not able to implement these commitments in time, the government then creates a new bureaucracy with new taxes to pay for it to impose new penalties on businesses, particularly punishing for smaller locations and premises, knowing that the time frames, according to those who provide the technology, are simply unachievable. What is going on here?

I did mention the other day that, depending on who you listen to, you get a very different story. This is a classic multichannel narrowcast message exercise by the government. Those Labor MPs who have built their community credentials of the back of leagues clubs and other clubs that derive their revenue and fund their outreach into the community through poker machine activity—and there are a number—are saying: 'Don't worry, we haven't pulled the trigger on precommitment. Yes, we are putting all the architecture in place, all the legal requirements, but you are not obliged to do much. Just spend the money to load up all of this architecture, but we haven't pulled the trigger. So incur all the costs but don't get too upset. This isn't such a big deal.' That is one message that is going out.

You then hear Nick Xenophon, a colleague in the other place, and Mr Wilkie, the member for Denison, saying this is the most watered-down cop-out they have ever seen. They have said this is a complete whitewash because it does not activate much. Then you have the government boasting that, for the community that are very keen to see a crackdown on poker machines, this is a landmark historic reform. Well, which one is it?

I think it is probably: load the gun, put all the machinery in place and impose all the obligations, with more regulation, more cost, more red tape, more bureaucracy and more of the Commonwealth getting into the lives of people who have no problem or no concern. Then, if this government is re-elected—and what a frightful thought that is for so many people in the small business community that I talk with day in, day out—you will see a nannyesque lack of concern for individual scope to make good decisions and the government will just put this on everybody like a ton of bricks. But in the meantime you will hear that narrowcast message out into the Labor seats, where they see this as a great imposition on their personal liberties. They see this form of gambling as a leisure activity for which they do not require the Commonwealth hanging over their shoulders.

Our view is that this is poorly conceived and poorly executed, in indecent haste, an unnecessary legislative frolic that has not got the benefit of the findings and learnings from the trial. Why have a trial if you are not going to take on board the learnings? It looks like so many other areas of policy where I get told by community members and stakeholders that the government's consultation processes are just a nonsense—that they are just there to tick a box, to make it look like people have been consulted, when the government have already decided what they are going to do. They simply go through the exercise of telling people what they are going to do, in the hope someone will come back and agree with them. Then the government will say: 'Look, look: someone agrees with us.' That is not evidence based policy; that is policy based evidence, where you decide what you are going to do and then you hope someone comes along to back up what you have already determined.

That has got to be what the trial is about. Why else would you legislate with such indecent haste, with all of the risks and concerns that have been communicated, if you are completely different to what the outcomes and learnings and findings might be from the trial? Why would you push on, when those responsible for rolling out the technology say it cannot be dealt with in the time that is prescribed? Why would you punish smaller clubs with less capacity to bring about this change, which, according to some on the government benches, they might never activate? Why would you ignore the central proposition that is embraced in the coalition's approach—that it is the person with the problem gambling disease that we should be working with? We understand the temptations and the pressures and the thought processes and get alongside those people, mindful that just further regulating a form of gambling that already is the most regulated of any in the country will not take away the temptation that leads to financial harm and hardship. That is why these bills should be rejected. (Time expired)