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Wednesday, 27 June 2001
Page: 25272

Senator GREIG (5:44 PM) —The Interactive Gambling Bill 2001 is seen by some people as a well intentioned attempt to tackle the very serious consequences of problem gambling. In reality, it is nothing of the sort. The bill, as far as I am concerned, is about information technology and, in particular, the Internet. Contrary to popular perception, the bill does not and cannot prohibit online gambling. It is impossible to ban or prohibit Internet accessibility of any kind in its entirety. The Internet is without international borders and straddles countless and conflicting legal jurisdictions. The bill is therefore, to my mind, a clumsy medieval attempt to address a modern dilemma for governments—that of untouchable, intangible, free and open two-way communications of thoughts and ideas, free from government intervention and political censorship. I see the bill primarily and essentially as being about information technology and modern communications, rather than about gambling. To illustrate that, the term `gambling' could be removed from the bill and replaced with any other term for human behaviour, thought or idea, and the effect of the bill would be the same.

When I attended the Senate Standing Committee on Environment, Communications, Information Technology and the Arts hearing on the bill here in Canberra during the last non-sitting period, I noted with interest that there was a short delay in getting under way that morning. The delay was caused when the committee chair had difficulty in separating his laptop from its port and in determining how to plug his mouse into the said laptop. There were a few moments of fumbling before a staff member from parliament's IT section was summoned to rectify the situation.

You might understand my concern with and mistrust of a committee report produced by a chair who, at the beginning of the hearings, was unable to grapple with laptop basics. It seems to me that a person who struggles with removing a laptop from its port is not best placed, only days later, competently and confidently to advocate sophisticated legislation aimed at addressing the subtleties of information technology and the World Wide Web. To be fair, I am not seeking to single out the chair for any personal reason. Grappling with hardware and coming to terms with software is something that most MPs and people in the general community are still coming to terms with—myself included—but I felt that that anecdote illustrated in a neat way the clash between ideas and reality in the broader IT censorship debate.

I will not support the bill because I believe it is a shallow and tokenistic attempt to be seen to be doing something about problem gambling without actually doing anything at all. In that sense, it is as absurd and irrational as its useless twin sister, the Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999. That previous legislation, much trumpeted by the government, and with the support of Senator Harradine and the then Senator Colston, was offered to the community as a `cure' to the perceived problem of the nastiness and pornography available on the Internet. The reality, however, even from recent reports, is that the passage of that bill did little more than eliminate or frustrate less than one per cent of the approximately 250,000 sexually explicit sites available on the World Wide Web.

At the same time, that absurd piece of legislation has had the effect of blocking or barring legitimate research and study on valid and academic topics in the general community. A constituent recently drew to my attention the fact that in Perth it is impossible to look up the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act or the Democrats' Sexuality Discrimination Bill 1995 [1998] at the state library because they contain the word `sex'. Similarly, some health and social workers in councils and rural communities who are working on preventing youth suicide, particularly amongst young gay and lesbian people, cannot readily hold email accounts. They cannot send or receive email if it contains the words `gay', `lesbian', or `sexuality', because those words are captured by Net-Nanny software and considered lewd or profane, and generally by United States definitions of those terms.

The online services bill was the Howard government's first knee-jerk reaction to the Internet, and this online gambling bill is its second. As with the first bill, the Interactive Gambling Bill is cause for embarrassment to anyone with the slightest understanding of the Internet, and it will fail just as greatly as its sister bill did. But perhaps of more concern to the technologically literate is the message that passage of this bill would send to the broader community and internationally. Increasingly, Australia is being rightly perceived as a Luddite nation in the modern world. Our federal government is creating fear of the Net and promoting itself as our saviour from it, when most comparable jurisdictions are taking an educative and regulatory approach to IT, rather than prohibition and all the ludicrous consequences that flow from that.

All that the bill will achieve, if passed, is a prohibition on Australians using Australian based gaming sites from within Australia. That means that online gamblers can and will still go to overseas sites with the `click of a mouse'. That, of course, was the reality with the online services bill. The result is that Australian money and jobs will then go overseas and Internet gaming will still be accessible to any Australian who seeks it.

I make it clear that not all Democrat senators share my view on that matter. Some feel passionately that, although the bill is inadequate, flawed and possibly ineffective, some government response to online gambling is better than none. I do not doubt their commitment to address problem gambling, and although I understand that position, I do not share it, particularly when problem gambling itself is clearly almost solely dominated by in situ poker machines and casinos, not Internet gambling.

It has often been said in this debate that Internet betting is set to explode, that it will grow exponentially, and that nipping it in the bud at this early point in its evolution is a wise response by governments. Again, I do not share that sentiment. The evidence does not necessarily support that theory. For a start, people with gambling addictions are more inclined to seek the socialisation and atmosphere of a gambling venue than to sit at home. Problem gamblers, for reasons of economics, are less likely to own a computer and to lease online services. Most problem gamblers are unlikely to subject themselves to scrutiny, pleading and emotional harassment from a spouse, partner or children by gambling away desperately needed money from within the family home.

Problem gambling is a serious social issue, with disastrous consequences for individuals, families and communities. Moreover, I am most concerned that problem gambling has particularly severe consequences in low socioeconomic communities—that is, problem gambling has a major social equity dimension. Despite all the noise over this matter—and I am sure that, like me, every senator has been inundated with lobbyists—the real issue with problem gambling, offline pokies, is untouched by the bill.

That provides me with further reassurance that the bill is a shallow diversion to a deeper problem, and one which is not addressed by the bill. I therefore foreshadow, on behalf of all Democrat senators, a second reading amendment that we believe goes more to the heart of the problem and effectively calls on the government to use all means available to it, including constitutional powers, to reverse the proliferation of the electronic gaming machines that we colloquially know as pokies.

Problem gambling is not reducible to one readily isolable factor, thus the one way to tackle it is a multifaceted harm minimisation and education approach, including the `managed liberalisation' regulatory measures as advocated in the Productivity Commission's Australian gambling industries report. A significant driver in this social problem is the proliferation of electronic gaming machines, EGMs, or pokies, which in turn is directly correlated with the needs of state and territory governments to maximise revenue. A clear example of this relationship is the significantly lower incidence of problem gambling in my own state, Western Australia. It has been a longstanding government policy in WA to resist the proliferation of EGMs by not allowing pokies to be sited outside casinos. I have no doubt that state and territory governments' increasing reliance on gambling revenues is symptomatic of a systemic political failure by successive governments to develop an equitable and realistic revenue base. It is not feasible that significant inroads into problem gambling can be achieved independently of addressing the broader resourcing issues for states and territories.

There has been significant public discussion of the proposed ban on interactive gambling and thus the basic propositions and arguments are well known. The Senate report Netbets: a review of online gambling in Australia and the Productivity Commission report recommended a regulatory approach over prohibition. The majority of Democrats concurred with that approach in our supplementary comments to the Netbets report. I do not believe any evidence presented to this inquiry or canvassed in the chair's report explains why the findings of the earlier Senate inquiry should now be disregarded, nor provides a convincing case that prohibition is the best approach.

The bill makes it an offence for providers located in Australia to provide interactive gambling services to a person physically present in Australia. The committee heard a number of principled objections to this approach, including the right of Australian adults to take responsibility for their own lives and the highly dubious ethical stance whereby Australians would be protected from interactive gambling with Australian sites but Australian operators could profit from citizens of other countries.

In addition to the principled arguments, there were a number of significant technical flaws in the reasoning of the bill's approach. The bill does not make it illegal for a person physically located in Australia to access offshore interactive gaming providers. As the National Office for the Information Economy, NOIE, have pointed out, the technical and commercial difficulties with quarantining access to offshore sites mean that that cannot be reasonably achieved. Thus, if the estimate that 2.1 per cent of gamblers are problem gamblers is accepted, this creates an important anomaly whereby:

The 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.

As Mr Clark, representing the Northern Territory Department of Industries and Business, stated in the committee hearing:

It is ironic that 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. Even more ironic is that with many of those that we are currently looking at with a view to moving into the physical world we will struggle to replicate what is available on the Internet ... We expect these features to help in fighting problem gambling. Indeed obviously the Productivity Commission, COAG and the Ministerial Council do as well or they would not have recommended that these features be applied to the physical world.

I have had an opportunity to look at some of the technological mechanisms available to ensure harm minimisation, including smart card technology. While there are some important concerns with privacy aspects of such technologies, I have no doubt that the Internet offers a considerably more effective platform for controlling problem gambling.

I am also struck by the irony this bill will create if passed; namely, problem gambling for online gamblers is currently regulated within Australia to what amounts to world's best practice. The safety net imposed on gamblers playing with Lasseter's Online, for example—a voluntary practice, it should be pointed out—goes some way towards harm minimisation. Players at this site can gamble no more that $500 per month and cannot bet on credit but, rather, they set a limit and play to that. There is no endless spiral to the limit of a credit card. If this bill becomes law, online gamblers and certainly those with gambling problems will simply continue to gamble with offshore, foreign based online gaming sites, none of which even pretend to have the same safeguards as existing Australian based ISPs. The net result, if you pardon the pun, is that the passage of this bill has the potential to drive problem gamblers deeper into debt at the hands of unscrupulous operators and, in some cases, Mafia owned gaming sites.

I think it is also important to talk briefly about the gaming versus wagering debate. This legislation stumbled in its early days because the racing industry took exception to the proposition that it should be included within the bill's parameters. An argument was developed that suggested there was an inherent difference between gambling on an Internet casino site and betting on a horse. The argument proposes that horseracing requires some level of skill and expertise, whereas gambling is totally mindless, repetitive and open to pure chance. I do not accept this rationale. Risking money on an uncertain outcome, whether that is on online gaming or a racehorse, is all gambling as far as I am concerned.

I am unsettled by the hypocrisy which says that losing your money on a horserace is okay but losing your money on Net gaming is not. I am disturbed by the hypocrisy of a Prime Minister who says he does not want to harm jobs for rural and regional Australians in the racing industry, but is silent on the job losses from regional Australians in the gambling industry should this bill pass. And I am uncomfortable with a government that quickly and shamelessly acquiesced to the business lobby and to the electoral threats with which the racing industry spooked the government. For as long as most Australians choose the outcome of a horserace by the name of the horse or the colour of the jockey's jacket, I will fail to see that skill and expertise play any particular role in that industry.

Let me be clear: I am not opposed to the racing industry, but I fail to see any difference between it and other forms of risking money on uncertain outcomes. The distinction is artificial. For that reason, I am opposed to separating wagering from gaming. It is all the same to me, and semantic arguments to the contrary do not wash with me. If this bill is to pass with wagering as a part of the outcome, with horseracing and other wagering included in the clumsy online ban, then I believe the government should wear the odium of that—and the racing industry, which otherwise claims to support the bill, may like to reconsider its position.

I also want to note the technological mediated harm minimisation approaches that would have a broader spin-off in helping to foster the uptake of e-commerce using smart card and other technologies. Given the government's rhetoric on an innovation society, it is surprising that they would jeopardise the development of innovative technologies while refusing to tackle the real issue with problem gambling. On a technical note, it should be recorded that Mr Peter Coroneus of the Internet Industry Association considers the bill technically dodgy because the use of Internet protocol addresses as the key to blocking access is flawed. As Mr Josh Giddon, IT writer with the Bulletin magazine, explains, this is:

... because IP addresses aren't passports, and can't be relied on to locate someone in cyberspace. Some ISPs will issue IP addresses that indicate the computer is located in the US, when in fact it's in Australia. There is nothing sinister about it, the Internet just works that way. The upshot is that while many ordinary Australians will be blocked from using gambling services, a significant proportion won't. The legislation smacks of rampant nanny-statism, and won't do anything to curb problem gamblers or address the social issues those gamblers cause. For reasons of international perception and domestic practicality, the legislation should be dropped.

I can only say, `Hear, hear!' In closing, I will pick up on one point that Senator Tambling just made. He drew a connection or a similarity between drug addiction and gambling addiction but then went on to say why he supports the bill. I make the point that prohibition on drugs has never worked, and prohibition on the Internet will not work either.