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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 24850

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (12:15 PM) —I begin my remarks on the Interactive Gambling Bill 2001 by commending Senator Crossin on highlighting the right to vote according to conscience. It is something that my party, the Australian Democrats, practices. It is a right that we hold dear. While exercised rarely, when it is exercised it tends to be on matters that involve particular social, ethical and clearly personal positions. Most of the media coverage about the interactive gambling legislation has concentrated not so much on the merits of the legislation but on whether or not this government has the numbers to pass it. Subsequently, media coverage of the Democrats position has concentrated on whether or not the Australian Democrat senators will vote differently from each other on the bill. Yes, we are going to do that, and Senator Woodley and others have indicated their reasons in their contributions. Certainly, Senator Woodley has spoken and I expect other colleagues to follow, including the portfolio holder, Senator Brian Greig, who will speak on behalf of the majority of party room.

We believe on this issue of gambling that individuals may feel the need to vote according to their conscience rather than the majority position. That is why, as leader, I have declared this very much a free vote. However, in relation to this debate about gambling there are more elements that Democrat senators agree on than on which they disagree. We agree that—and I suspect any computer literate commentator also agrees on this point—it is technically difficult to stop access to Internet sites at Australian borders. We certainly endorse the IIA comments that were made available to the chamber in Senator Crossin's contribution earlier. My personal position is that the legislation before us is neither desirable nor technically feasible. The Democrats also share a very common concern that the real issues of problem gambling in Australia are not fundamentally being addressed by the legislation before us. We are united in our belief that the impact of problem gambling hits hardest in communities that can least afford it.

We know that one of the biggest sources of problem gambling in Australia right now is poker machines. This bill does not touch on this issue. Amendments are being moved to make sure that the inadvertent capturing of poker machines in this legislation does not happen. The Democrats agree that a regulatory approach is to be recommended, as did the Senate report Netbets: A review of online gambling in Australia as well as the 1999 Productivity Commission report on Australia's gambling industries. We agree that the states' and territories' reliance on gambling revenue has been a major impediment to reform.

One way of genuinely addressing problem gambling would be through the Ministerial Council on Gambling. Subsequently, it was on behalf of my party that yesterday I wrote to the Prime Minister and asked him to assume responsibilities over the Ministerial Council on Gambling in conjunction with the premiers and the chief ministers of the states and territories. The establishment of a Ministerial Council on Gambling aimed at achieving a national approach to the challenge of problem gambling was a key recommendation of the 1999 Productivity Commission report. The aim of the ministerial council was to establish a national approach to the negative impacts of problem gambling by exchanging information on responsible gambling strategies and providing a forum for discussing common issues, with the objective of developing suitable regulatory approaches. The ministerial council was meant to be a conduit for the exchange of information and approaches to gambling issues, and yet the Commonwealth did not even consult with the council in the formation of this legislation. It was raised with the council for the first time after this bill had been written.

In 1999, when the Productivity Commission report, with its frightening picture of the devastating cost of gambling, was released, the Prime Minister put out a press release acknowledging that gambling regulation is primarily a state responsibility. He said:

We need, however, a national response to what is clearly a national problem.

That national response has not been forthcoming. The Prime Minister has repeatedly called gambling a `significant social evil'. The Australian Democrats—as do, I suspect, all members in the chamber—agree that problem gambling has serious and debilitating social consequences. We welcome a commitment from the government to the Democrats that it will commit funds towards research into the social and economic effects of gambling and towards an education program warning Australians about the dangers of the misuse of gambling, as we recommended in our amendments during the moratorium legislation. We are glad to see that the government has picked up some of those recommendations, although not all. We urge the government to continue to work with the states to increase funding for counselling and rehabilitation programs.

The Prime Minister has not addressed the core of the problem. If we are to minimise the scope for problem gambling among Australians, as the explanatory memorandum of this bill suggests, we are not going to do it through this bill. This is, at best, a well-intentioned, perhaps, but unenforceable exercise in fiddling at the margins, because interactive gambling accounts for less than one per cent of gambling activities. We know one thing, though: a significant problem is poker machines or electronic gaming machines, best known as the pokies. Even Lloyd Williams, the founder of Crown Casino, has admitted that there are too many poker machines in Australia. Of all the poker machines in the world, one in five is in our country.

Reverend Tim Costello describes them as `the most aggressive form of gambling'. They are, perhaps, the least skilled gambling activity we have. It is hardly surprising that, according to the Productivity Commission's report, 92 per cent of Australians do not want to see further expansion of gambling machines. Action needs to be taken to reduce the number of pokies and to minimise their accessibility to Australians with a gambling problem. In my letter yesterday on behalf of the party to the Prime Minister, I urged him to use Commonwealth powers to prevent linked poker machine jackpots, to control misleading advertising and to reduce the number of poker machines, particularly in communities with a high incidence of problem gambling.

The Democrats have had long-held concerns—and these concerns are reflected in other parliaments in which we have representations—about the impact of problem gambling, particularly the impact of poker machines on the Australian community. We do not need another delaying tactic to avoid the real issue, or ineffective legislation designed to distract the electorate from the problem. We need decisive political force to reduce the number of poker machines in this country, but a reduction does not mean pulling them out of low risk, high income areas and leaving them in the low income, high risk areas, where the social consequences have been particularly disastrous.

The 1999 Productivity Commission report was the first comprehensive investigation into gambling in this country. It gives a picture not only of the regulatory structure of the gambling industries and the economics but also of the social consequences of the rapidly expanding gambling market. The Productivity Commission's report found that Australians gamble $11 billion per annum, more than half on poker machines—I think Senator Harradine has already put that on record—but the real issue of concern is problem gamblers, as it should be. The report found that around 290,000 Australians are problem gamblers, and problem gambling accounts for more than $3 billion in losses annually. To put that in perspective, compare the losses of more than $3 billion annually through problem gambling with, say, Commonwealth expenditure on vocational education, which is $1 billion. Problem gambling losses are more than three times what this government spends on vocational education.

These figures do not give us a feel for the human cost of problem gambling. This is disastrous not only for these problem gamblers but also for the estimated 1.5 million they directly affect as a result of bankruptcy, divorce, suicide and lost time at work. One in 10 problem gamblers said that they had contemplated suicide, and nearly half of those in counselling reported losing time from work or study in the past year due to gambling. Problem gambling is a serious issue with social and disastrous consequences for individuals, their families and their communities. Moreover, we are most concerned that problem gambling has particularly severe consequences in low socioeconomic communities.

The current regulatory environment is deficient. Regulations are complex, fragmented and often inconsistent. This has arisen primarily because of the inadequate policy making process and the strong incentives for governments to derive revenue from gambling. There are two levels to the problem of gambling that are relevant here: firstly, the individuals who are addicted to gambling; and, secondly, the states and territories who are addicted to gambling revenue.

The Ministerial Council on Gambling is the obvious starting point to initiate a national approach to the winding back of electronic gaming machines, or pokies, in this country. However, there are some problems with the council. The majority of members on that council are racing or revenue ministers. The only exceptions are the Commonwealth Minister for Family and Community Services, the Chief Minister of the Australian Capital Territory, the Deputy Premier of Tasmania and Norfolk Island's Minister for Health and Environment. They are outnumbered by six other ministers with interests in protecting gaming and raising revenue. I am not suggesting that they do not have an interest in the social and other consequences, but clearly their portfolios are in relation to gaming and racing interests.

There is a metaphor in the fact that in Brisbane they converted the old Treasury building into a casino. States' and territories' reliance on gambling revenues means that they have another focus. The Western Australian government runs its own lottery, with no shareholders, and the profits go directly to the Western Australian community. After prizes are paid to the winners, 40 per cent of the revenue is allocated to public hospitals. The rest goes to funding for the arts, to sports and to hundreds of community groups. Western Australia, however, is the state that has best resisted the temptation to allow proliferation of the pokies and, correspondingly, has a significantly lower incidence of problem gambling.

The Democrats believe it is now time for the Prime Minister, the premiers and the chief ministers of each jurisdiction to get involved. There is a popular song by the Australian band The Whitlams—which played here last night, apparently—called Blow up the pokies. One lyric says:

They are taking the food off the table so they can say the trains run on time.

There are vested interests in our states and territories in relation to this area, and that is why we need a leadership role from the Prime Minister, from the premiers and from the chief ministers. We should be pursuing regulatory measures as advocated in the Productivity Commission's report. Reverend Tim Costello, in his book Wanna bet, points to state governments' progressive watering down of the tougher regulations of 20 to 30 years ago. The Senate committee's report Netbets: A review of online gambling in Australia, as well as the Productivity Commission's report, recommended a regulatory approach over prohibition, so we are at a loss as to why the findings of the earlier Senate inquiry and the Productivity Commission's report should be disregarded.

There has been significant public discussion of the proposed ban on interactive gambling. While it is positive in that it has meant increased discussion of the broader problem of gambling, unfortunately that has seemingly led a number of the members of the public to believe that the government is doing something to address this problem. In fact, the real problem is worsening, and this bill will do very little, if anything, to address it. This bill will not even solve problem gambling in the narrow field of Internet gambling. The bill does not make it illegal for a person physically located in Australia to access offshore interactive gambling providers. As the National Office for the Information Economy has pointed out, the technical and commercial difficulties with quarantining access to offshore sites cannot be reasonably achieved. I believe that the Interactive Gambling Bill 2001 is unworkable. It is crazy to pass laws that cannot be enforced.

The bill does not and cannot prohibit online gambling. It can only hope to prevent online gambling through Australian sites. In effect, it is just handing over Australians who gamble to overseas gambling sites, with the click of a mouse. The result is that Australian money and jobs go overseas and Internet gambling is still accessible to any Australian who seeks it. Further, we will have no power to protect those Australians through regulation. Again and again this government has proven that it does not understand the technological, cultural and practical workings of the Internet. The Internet offers significant advantages to Australians, particularly those who are geographically isolated or isolated because of limited mobility. The benefits offered by the Internet also apply to gambling, as they do to other areas of the Internet. As the Northern Territory Department of Industries and Business pointed out:

This Bill ... will deny the 98% recreational gamblers the benefits of using Australian sites but will not prevent the 2% of problem gamblers from accessing almost all of the gambling sites on the Internet. As offshore sites do not have the harm minimisation features required by Australian regulations, this will exacerbate problem gambling.

The Northern Territory Department of Industries and Business also pointed out:

... many of the features that COAG and the Ministerial Council on Gambling would like to see implemented in the physical world are inspired by or easily achievable on the Internet technological platform.

Mechanisms to ensure harm minimisation are actually more readily available for Internet gambling than for other forms of gambling. I acknowledge that progress has been made in states and territories in furthering some kind of regulatory network. But, just as we were starting to see those efforts through the Darwin Summit and other meetings, the government has come in over the top of it, ignoring all the good advice we have had about regulation, why it works and why it should be promoted, with a prohibition that is both unworkable and undesirable, in my opinion.

One thing we cannot deny in this chamber is that Australia has long had a culture of gambling but a short history of failed attempts at prohibition. We have the diggers playing two-up in the back alley, the chook raffle, the meat tray and the bingo. This is gambling as it can be: entertainment, not obsession—games of chance and the chance to be game, if you like. Many charity events and fundraisers are based on gambling. We would be fools to deny it. Thousands of Australians buy books of tickets in lotteries and art unions, and not just in the remote hope of winning that trip to the Gold Coast or the car or whatever but because they want to support a worthy charity. I am not condemning those events. My small `l' liberal politics would not allow me to condemn those events, and I do not. I do not believe that these are the kinds of things that we should be worried about. I do not think we need to worry about them. These are community activities. If you like, they have in-built limits. It is a lot to do with the fact, I think, that some of these endeavours are communal; they are not lonely activities. They are out in the open, and not isolated. There are limits on how much can be bet and there are limits on when you can bet. They are, in effect, regulated. Proper regulation is what is needed to address the problems that have come from the dominant and still growing sectors of gambling—of casinos and pokies—as well as the emerging mode of gambling through the Internet.

But what is being proposed here is that we just continue to ignore one of the biggest existing problems—that is, poker machines—and concentrate all efforts on trying to stop something we cannot stop, not in this form and not practically—that is, Internet gambling. All this bill will do is move it overseas. The problem will stay in Australia but the profits will go overseas. The regulation of gambling has traditionally been a state responsibility. However, the Commonwealth has a direct responsibility in relation to the use of the Internet for gambling. So, in order to be seen to be doing something, the government is charging ahead with this ineffective bill instead of focusing on regulation as it should be.

When the moratorium legislation was discussed in its committee stage at the end of last year, I challenged the government—indeed, I did the first time round as well—to actually tackle land based and other gambling ventures. That challenge still stands because, again, there is still a distinction between the progress we have seen the Internet gaming industry make in relation to regulation versus the regulations that exist for land based and other gambling ventures. So that challenge still stands, and my party extends that challenge again to the Prime Minister today, as we did yesterday in the form of a letter on behalf of our entire party room.

The Democrats are united in calling for the Prime Minister, the premiers and the chief ministers to immediately take a role in, and take responsibility for, the Ministerial Council on Gambling. I hope the government will hear that challenge and respond to it. I hope the government, instead of seeking headlines in order to be seen to be doing something about interactive gambling through this bill, will actually start reading some of the literature that is available, the literature that many of us who have been involved in the Netbets inquiry have read in detail and understand—that is, in short, that we should have a stringent regulatory national approach to this particular issue and not a technically unworkable and undesirable approach, as I believe is encapsulated in the legislation before us.