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Thursday, 21 June 2001
Page: 24854

Senator HARRIS (12:35 PM) —I rise to speak on the Interactive Gambling Bill 2001. When the government first announced the reason for the introduction of a bill to permit the difficulties arising from problem gambling to be addressed, I was quite relieved. However, that relief was short-lived. When I read the details of the proposed moratorium bill, the futility and inadequacy of this whole project dawned on me. The original focus of the exercise was aimed at stopping any further expansion of problem gambling in Australia, alleviating the associated problems on both families in the wider community and consumer protection. These are all highly admirable qualities and ideals and I hope they are attainable. However, living in the real world, I was soon brought back to reality, firstly, by the feasibility. In 1998 a Productivity Commission report brought to light some interesting figures, mainly the fact that most Australians—that is, over 80 per cent—partake in some form of gambling, with 40 per cent of them gambling regularly. The problem factor in these figures amounts to 2.1 per cent, ranging across various levels of concern.

The most interesting factor arising from this report related to the particular concerns being raised in relation to the readily available access of poker machines across the length and breadth of this country. The commission concluded that there was not sufficient evidence to support the banning of any existing form of gambling and supported a better policy course of improving the range of strategies to alleviate the resulting gambling risks. Netbets 2000 approached the issue from a more regional state basis and recommended the development of uniform regulations be negotiated between the states.

This exercise has been further developed with the compilation of the AUSMODEL draft, which recommends putting in place uniform and consistent standards focusing on player protection, operator probity and system integrity. This model puts in place very stringent controls on Australian Internet gambling companies, incorporating such measures as licensing controls, advertising, player registration, exclusion provisions and close monitoring of financial transactions. This model is setting world best practice standards in the Internet gambling industry, second to none in the rest of the world. As the present licensing of Internet gaming applicants rests with the provisions of the states, and each of the states presently has a very different perspective towards gambling, I maintain that the states should continue to implement their agendas without medalling by the federal government.

The technological feasibility of the full implementation of this bill remains a concern. Any attempt to monitor or censor the Internet—and we are actually talking about the World Wide Web—would appear to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. I realise the proposed intention of this bill is to impose threats to any overseas Internet gambling provider should they step ashore in Australia, but it remains to be seen whether these people will be greatly deterred or hindered by this provision. NOIE concludes in its report that none of the methods would be 100 per cent effective. The claim that this bill is both illogical and counterproductive does bear some credence; hence the futility of the bill.

Present Australian Internet gaming businesses have, up to this point in time, invested millions of dollars within Australia and employ thousands of people—some of them highly skilled IT workers on very good salaries. The present Australian industry brings much needed export dollars into our coffers and hence generates the flow-on economic benefits. While I understand the argument that this industry is cheating the local stores and supermarkets of shopping dollars and jobs, I can see the equivalent diversionary argument that this industry—that is, the IT industry—also produces many dollars and generates many jobs, particularly in regions and less populous states, such as the Northern Territory and Tasmania. These states desperately need this investment and these jobs and, unfortunately, they will pay disproportionately to the other states.

Nowhere in the bill have I seen—nor have I heard in any discussions on the bill—any responsibility taken on the part of the government for the financial losses and hardships that are to be borne by present providers and their employees. I would think this government would owe a duty of care to those people so affected and should be required to pay compensation for these victims of the provisions in the bill. The uncertainty that this bill has generated has resulted in many of the large companies planning not to close down but to move offshore to places such as Quebec, the United Kingdom and New Zealand and countries that offer far less regulatory stringency. Australia will gain nothing from this bill, but will lose much.

The censorship demands and costs are to be imposed on the ISPs. The inconsistency with this lies with the lack of the same censorship demands on the communications companies that provide the very same lines—not to mention the distinctions being assumed between those very same lines being used for direct phone betting as against Internet betting usage. In my private home, for example, my PC is connected to the same phone line, and it would be a choice between picking up the phone or clicking on the Internet. The bill makes no distinction between those lines.

This bill sets about banning Internet gambling services to anyone physically present within Australia from providers both within and outside Australia. While I commend the general parochial intent of the bill to protect Australians from themselves, I find it highly unlikely that this would be achieved; hence I tend to err on the side of the lesser of the two evils. Should someone wish to avail themselves of Internet gambling facilities, I would much prefer to have them access a highly regulated and guaranteed payments site than an unregulated and highly risky overseas venue.

I have repeatedly heard the counterargument that they will `only do it once'. This argument does not stand up to scrutiny when these overseas reputable sites emanate from the likes of the US. Companies such as the Nevada based casinos—which have seen the realities of the future and are hence on their way—and the United Kingdom's Ladbrokes and Sporting Bet are going to cash in on our citizens. These large conglomerates are highly successful businesses with equally successful reputations. This effectively results in the production of a new export industry for Australia—that is, our own Internet gambling business. I totally support the government's intention to exclude the wagering provisions in the bill covering horse racing and sports, as these industries, particularly horse racing, have a long, colourful and exciting history in this country.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Bartlett)—Order! It being 12.45 p.m., the debate on this matter is now adjourned.