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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 911


Senator WILLIAMS (New South Wales) (09:48): I rise to speak on the Poker Machine Harm Reduction ($1 Bets and Other Measures) Bill 2012 [2013], and I point out that the purpose of the bill is to reduce the harm caused by problem gambling by regulating the operations of poker machines through limiting the rate of loss of players. The bill aims to put in place machine capability by 1 January 2013; a $20 load-up limit for gaming machines, both in terms of accepting banknotes and in terms of accepting additional credits where the credits are already $20 or more, by 1 January 2017 for larger venues and by 1 January 2019 for smaller venues; and a $1 maximum bet limit per spin on gaming machines and limited linked jackpots and machine jackpots greater than $500.

This bill did go to the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Gambling Reform, and the committee recommended that the bill not be passed. With respect to Senators Di Natale, Xenophon and Madigan, I share their concern. In the country town I live in, Inverell, some years back a lady had an addiction to poker machines. She did do the wrong thing, and she ended up going to jail because of that addiction. It is a very serious problem. Coming from a family of bookmakers—my grandfather was a bookmaker and had betting shops back in the early 1900s in South Australia, and my late father, Reg Williams, was a bookmaker—I have seen firsthand the problem of gambling. But I will start by saying that the coalition government do not support this bill. We are committed to supporting problem gamblers, but it is a fact that most people do gamble responsibly. The majority should not be penalised by draconian laws because a minority have a gambling issue.

The Abbott-Truss government is not blind to these problems, and our policy is to assist problem gamblers with counselling, support services and voluntary precommitment. This is vastly different to the approach of the Labor-Greens alliance, which was supported by the Independents. They bludgeoned the clubs and hotels industry into submission, never listening to the stakeholders but instead imposing harsh laws. I know the clubs in the New England electorate were ropeable, and they let the then Independent member for New England, Tony Windsor, know in no uncertain manner what they thought of the proposals. It was one of his more memorable parting gifts—but more about that later.

We are talking about an industry that employs over 150,000 people throughout Australia and provides entertainment, sponsorship and donations for many millions of Australians. That is why we must be aware of the ramifications of this legislation. In addressing this legislation I would like to specifically address a couple of points. To introduce a $1 bet would mean enormous cost to the industry and the clubs. It is important to note that less than one per cent of gaming machines are set up to allow $1 bets. To change all this would be a massive cost, with design, development and approval of software. That could cost as much as $6,000 per machine. I think here of the little clubs that are the heart of their small country communities. They simply cannot afford this. Many are battling now to remain viable.

If we look at the nationwide cost, it will exceed $1 billion. It would probably be closer to $1.5 billion and maybe more. By my estimate, over half the poker machines in Australia are too old to have the new software installed, so they would need to be replaced at an estimated cost of $25,000 a machine. So we are looking at a $1-billion to $1.5-billion cost to our clubs. And, as I said, in many towns the club is the heart of the community.

I will turn now to precommitment versus $1 bets. Precommitment technology can be connected to a gaming machine without it being a costly exercise. The cost of precommitment upgrades is about $2,000 per machine. Compare that to the projected cost of converting machines to implement low-intensity features of about $6,000, to the cost of replacing a machine of $25,000. Voluntary precommitment provides personal choice, and it is left in the hands of the consumer to choose what they want to do.

Registered clubs have been the whipping boys in this whole debate. They were not listened to by those in the previous government, but the coalition listened in opposition and is listening now in government. I have spoken with club boards in many areas, and all are very concerned that they could be forced into a situation that would see them go to the wall. People should not underestimate the borderline viability of the smaller clubs in rural and regional areas—and that is simply a fact. The clubs do it tough, battling to survive, especially in smaller communities.

I will give you another example: Inverell RSM Club—a magnificent club in the town where I live. It does so much good for the community. It estimated, back in 2011, that it would be out of pocket $1 million to bring machines up to scratch. I will quote from their statement: 'This would change the way the club operates and have a big effect on the way we distribute funds back into the community with scholarships, donations and sponsorships.' This is a club that gives over $50,000 in donations and sponsorships plus in-kind support.

Senator Di Natale: To the Liberal Party!

Senator WILLIAMS: As to that interjection by Senator Di Natale, I will check with Jacko Ross, the President of the Inverell RSM Club, and I will ask that very question: how much money has the Inverell RSM Club donated to the Liberal Party?

Senator Di Natale: How much does the industry donate to the Liberal Party?

Senator WILLIAMS: So I will put that question to them, and I will know exactly how much.

Senator Di Natale interjecting

Senator WILLIAMS: Well, perhaps we should go to Mr Wotif. Let us talk about donations and go to Wotif and the $1.6 billion donation to the Greens. You are holier-than-thou, but the biggest donation to any political party in the history of Australia went to who? To the Greens. 'Thank you, Mr Graeme Wood; just give us the cheque for $1.6 billion.' And now we get an accusation that the Inverell RSM Club is donating to the Liberal Party. I find that very amazing. In Inverell they do not even have a Liberal Party branch. We did not have a Liberal Party candidate last election; we had a National Party candidate by the name of Mr Barnaby Joyce—you may have heard of him, Senator Di Natale. That is outrageous—we are trying to be serious here about a very serious issue, and you are making a fool of yourself.

Senator Di Natale: And the industry donates to the Liberal Party. You know that. You're compromised, mate; you're hopelessly compromised.

Senator Ryan interjecting

Senator WILLIAMS: So, as I said, the Inverell RSM Club donated more than—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT ( Senator Boyce ): Senator Williams, just ignore the interjections—

Senator WILLIAMS: That is why I am going on speaking.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: and can I suggest that the interjections cease—

Senator Di Natale interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Di Natale!

Senator WILLIAMS: I met with clubs at Port Macquarie. I had a good meeting with the board members from Port Macquarie Panthers and Club Taree. Back in 2011, the Wauchope RSL estimated that it would cost $1.59 million to change their arrangements with their poker machines. For Port Macquarie Panthers—a magnificent club in Port Macquarie, a beautiful part of Australia—it would cost $3.82 million for mandatory precommitment changes. These clubs do not have a bottomless pit of money, so something has to give. Will it be their sponsorship of the local junior sports teams, their subsidisation of cheap meals for our elderly or their scholarships for our gifted students? It is so easy to just attack the clubs over an issue.

I wonder if we are going to see a bill come to this chamber to put a maximum of $1 on bets at TABs and racecourses. There are plenty of gamblers who have a serious gambling problem who bet on racehorses, dogs, the trots—you name it, I have seen it. So are we going to put a $1 maximum on those bets as well?

What are the measures that the government is taking? We will repeal the functions of the national gambling regulator. All states and territories already have their own. We do not have to duplicate in this place; there is already too much duplication between governments in Australia, at a huge cost. Measures on ATMs, including cash withdrawal limits, are being removed to allow states to regulate. States like Victoria are already doing this at a state level.

I will give you an example: the Gravesend Hotel is in a small community east of Moree. It has the only ATM in town. A station worker, a worker on a property, might go in and say, 'I want to withdraw $300.' Because they have a couple of poker machines in the pub, he cannot. But what is wrong? It is his money. Are we such a big-stick operation here in Canberra that we are just going to say: 'No; you've gone into an ATM'—the only one in the town, by the way—'and you can only take $250 out'? Is that fair? What are we doing here?

The mandatory precommitment trial in the ACT will not commence under the legislation just being passed through the House of Representatives. The government is committed to pursuing venue based voluntary precommitment in the future. It will come in. Under the current laws, passed by the previous government, clubs had to go to all the cost of the precommitment and link the machines up to all the other clubs around the area at a huge cost—and then the patrons did not have to use it! It is just like having a law where every car manufactured in or imported into Australia must have seat belts but you do not have to wear them. That is the case with the previous Labor government's Andrew-Wilkie-style proposal, which would simply have done absolutely nothing except made things more costly.

The government is committed to pursuing venue based voluntary precommitment in the future by allowing the change of machines to do it, which will reduce, enormously, the cost to the clubs. The deadline for venues with greater than 20 machines needing to have voluntary precommitment enabled by 2018 has been removed. I share the concerns of many in this place. I have seen firsthand people with gambling problems. But by putting huge costs onto our clubs and threatening the viability of such clubs whereby they may have to close down, jobs will be gone from the towns. A place for community meetings will be removed. In Port Macquarie many, many elderly people go to the clubs in summertime, not to play poker machines, not to gamble in any way whatsoever, but because it is hot and they cannot afford air conditioning in their houses, and the club is air conditioned and pleasant. We do not want to make it hard for those people.

We want to help those people who have a serious gambling problem. Shutting down the clubs is not on, as I said, especially for the smaller clubs in the rural and regional areas that are the heart of the town. The big stick approach should be given away. People in this country are sick of being told from Canberra what they can do and what they cannot do. People are able to make their own decisions. We need to counsel and assist those with gambling problems. We want to help those people with gambling problems, but threatening the viability of the clubs is not the answer. It is too expensive and too costly. I am glad to be part of the coalition government that will not support this bill.