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Thursday, 5 December 2013
Page: 915

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (10:02): I thought I would be standing up today and giving a speech to argue the case for $1 bet limits, but it seems that, on the back of the legislation introduced by the government to repeal the very modest reforms around poker machines introduced in the last parliament, we are not just fighting for what is the appropriate response to limiting harm from poker machines but fighting a rearguard action against some of the most modest reforms we have seen anywhere in the country. What we need to understand is that this is an issue that affects the lives of Australians from small communities to big cities, but it is mostly the vulnerable, the poorest people, who are most affected.

I am not going to go into great length and recite the stats around problem gambling. Most people know the information. We lose $19 billion a year on gambling and $12 billion of that comes from the pokies. Senator Williams suggested that we put regulations on the TAB. If the TAB were the biggest source of problem gambling, then we might think about that. It is the pokies that are the issue. The vast bulk of people who get into problems with gambling are people who have a problem with the pokies. Of the $12 billion that is lost, $5 billion of it comes from problem gamblers. Forty per cent of the revenue that gets put into those machines comes from the people who can least afford it. That is the reality.

The numbers, in a sense, disguise what the real issues are, which are the stories about the way this affects people's lives. Most people know, or know of, somebody who has been affected by the pokies. I spoke to a colleague recently who had an employee that embezzled money because they got into trouble with the pokies, and then that employee embezzled money from his clients. I have very close working associates whose families have got into huge trouble with the pokies and they have refused, or have been too embarrassed, to come clean about the issue for fear of the shame associated with their addiction. This is an issue that affects the lives of people. It tears families apart and kids go hungry at night. That is the impact that problem gambling with poker machines has on people's lives.

The question is—and it is a legitimate question: what is the role of the state in regulating an activity that is a legitimate source of entertainment for many people but also produces significant harms? I keep hearing the nanny-state argument. It is one of the most fraudulent arguments used, usually by the people on the other side. I have never heard anybody complain about the nanny state when an ambulance comes and picks them up because they have had a heart attack and takes them to hospital to begin treatment. You do not hear too many people complaining about the nanny state then, or when the emergency services do great work in the face of a catastrophe. You very rarely hear people complaining about the nanny state in those circumstances. The question is: what is the role of the state in regulating an activity that is a legitimate entertainment but has the potential to cause serious harm, and in this case does cause serious harm?

We saw leadership from the coalition on an issue just like this in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre. People have a legitimate right to own guns. Guns serve an important purpose for many people in the community, but they also have the potential for real harm. We saw leadership from former Prime Minister John Howard, who introduced some really important reforms around gun control. He got the right balance around the legitimate rights of the individual and also ensured the government stepped in to minimise harm.

We get the balance wrong when it comes to things like alcohol and illicit drugs, and we have absolutely got the balance wrong when it comes to the question of poker machines. The Productivity Commission made it very clear: if you want to reduce harm from pokies you introduce $1 bet limits. It is pretty simple—you put $1 into a machine, maximum, per spin. It still means you can lose hundreds of dollars in an hour, but you do not lose the thousands of dollars that people can lose in a night's entertainment.

We have machines in this country that are not like machines anywhere else in the world. They are the assault weapons of the gambling world. They are the semiautomatic rifles of the gambling world. Our high-intensity machines in Australia are like no other. All this reform seeks to do is to bring our machines in line with the machines in other places. Individuals who do not have a problem and want to gamble legitimately can still do that. This is about the problem gamblers who bet huge amounts of money and lose thousands of dollars in an hour. The ordinary punter will not be affected by this reform. That is the beauty of $1 bet limits: the ordinary punter can continue to gamble; mum and dad can catch the bus down to the local club, get their parma and pot of beer, put some money into the pokies and not be affected. It is the problem gambler that this measure targets. The reason the industry do not like it is that they have a business model that is premised on 40 per cent of their income coming from problem gamblers. That is why the industry fights so very hard against it.

The issue before the parliament at this moment is about $1 bet limits, but the issue before the Senate in the coming weeks will be whether we support some of the most modest reforms that were introduced during the last parliament: limits on ATMs so that people cannot keep going to the ATM and withdrawing large amounts of cash—again, something that problem gamblers do, and the ordinary punter is not affected—and making the machines mandatory precommitment-ready so that every machine that comes out of a factory, at practically no cost to the industry, will have mandatory precommitment technology so that at some point a government with some courage might actually introduce that—again, a simple, modest reform that is very hard to argue against. And yet what did we see in the lower house yesterday? We saw the government introduce legislation that would repeal these modest reforms.

I find it staggering that a minister who wears his Christianity on his sleeve as a badge of honour would introduce legislation that affects some of the poorest and some of the most vulnerable people in our community and still allows ordinary punters to continue to bet on the pokies. This is a purely political act. It is a political act because they recognise that, within the Labor Party, there is division on this issue. I know there are many good people inside the Labor Party who are fighting the good fight. I know that there are many people who want to see the reforms, as modest as they were, that were introduced in the last parliament protected, but I also know the clout of the pokies industry. I know the clout of the clubs who deliberately target individual members of parliament and will use against them their support of a reform that protects vulnerable people but might reduce some of the revenue of some clubs. I know how brutal they can be. I also know that courage is in very short supply in this place.

What we are now seeing is not growing support for $1 bet limits, which the Productivity Commission has recommended is the most sensible way of addressing this issue; what we are now seeing is backsliding on the modest reforms from the last parliament. That backsliding means that, for the first time, where the Commonwealth had entered the space of poker machine regulation, we are going to vacate the space. It is going to make it almost impossible for a future government to decide to tackle this issue down the track.

The idea that this somehow would send the clubs industry broke is a nonsense. There are no poker machines in Western Australian clubs. They have a thriving clubs industry in that state. Their participation in sport is just as good, if not better, as other states. They do not have poker machines; they do not prey on the most vulnerable people in their clubs. So that is a nonsense. It is a furphy and it is what you would expect from the vested interests that make their money at the hands of some of the most vulnerable.

We are here to talk about $1 bet limits, but I do want to raise the issue of the legislation that was introduced into the parliament yesterday. Not only was the legislation introduced to try and unwind some of the modest action that we achieved in the last parliament but it was introduced under the cloak of secrecy. It was rushed through as part of an omnibus bill, cobbled together with all sorts of other pieces of social services legislation, with the hope that it would avoid the scrutiny of both the lower house and the Senate. This is a pattern that is emerging from this government—a government that promised open, honest, accountable government with no surprises in its first few weeks is introducing legislation, hoping to slide it through, that would unwind what was one of the most important issues of the last parliament. That bill deserves scrutiny and members in this place deserve to have the opportunity to debate and interrogate why on earth we would be giving this free kick to the pokies industry and unwinding reforms that ensure that some of the most vulnerable people in our community cannot go to an ATM and keep withdrawing large amounts of cash but can at some point in the future set a bet limit so that when they go into a club they can determine from the very start how much they are prepared to lose. And yet here we are looking at repealing that modest legislation.

We will not let that happen without a fight. We are going to mobilise those voices in the community. People like the InterChurch Gambling Taskforce are representing the various churches and understand that real Christianity is about protecting the most vulnerable people. It is not about ensuring that rent seekers and vested interests get what they want, using their might and their force to intimidate politicians who do not have the courage to stand up to them. That is what this debate is about, and we are ready for the fight. As Senator Xenophon said, we are ready for the fight. We expect that, the Commonwealth government having for the first time entered the space of regulation of poker machines, we will not vacate the space. It is an important precedent that was set last year. Granted, it was modest and the reforms were nowhere near where they needed to be, but at least we have the Australian parliament talking about what we can do to protect our most vulnerable Australians.

We know that the common-sense answer is dollar bet limits. They will not affect ordinary punters, who will continue to gamble in the same way they always have, but problem gamblers will not lose thousands of dollars in an hour. While we would like to see that reform, which was backed by evidence and by the Productivity Commission—who said, 'This does not need a trial; this can go ahead immediately; we know it will work'—I am realistic enough to understand that that is a long way off. But what I do want to see is that those modest reforms, which were introduced through the hard work of many good people in this parliament, are protected and that we stand up against Minister Andrews, who is using this as a wedge issue to try to exploit the division within the Labor Party—and it is true that there is division.

The opposition leader cannot hide from this issue. He will face scrutiny, and he will need to make a stand. Does he stand with the industry and with a business model that makes money off the backs of problem gamblers, or does he stand with the community, who overwhelmingly support reform in this space? It is time for Mr Shorten and Mr Abbott to take a stand, and I hope that they side with the community.