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Wednesday, 27 June 2001
Page: 25276

Senator SCHACHT (6:01 PM) —I rise to oppose the Interactive Gambling Bill 2001. The remarks of Senator Greig have been most thoughtfully put together. He summed up the position that I take. On this issue he, like me, is a civil libertarian. I am not in favour of the government interfering in the private lives of people unless harm is being done by one person to another. That is the basis of a civilised society. Here the issue is whether gambling is to be partly banned, with some gambling being said to be bad and other gambling being said to be good.

By proposing this bill, the government has been caught in its own hypocrisy. Once people have a chance to read the bill, they will suddenly find that, because of the stupid way this government drafted the bill originally, under the telecommunications powers of the Constitution of this country, poker machines connected by telephone wires, telephone betting and all such matters could clearly come under the control of the Australian government, which could use its telecommunications powers. These powers are unequivocal and are written into the Constitution.

Once it became clear that this would affect licensed clubs, racing clubs, horseracing, trotting and dogs, et cetera, the government realised that the Prime Minister's beat-up to try to cater for the populist stream of thought that had passed through his market research people had been undone. Now we have to deal with the stupidity of the government in that they have not withdrawn the bill and said, `We got it wrong.' Instead, they are saying, `We're going to amend it. Internet gambling is crook, but horseracing and poker machines—where you use telephone wires and electronic communication—are okay.' As Senator Greig said, this has been exposed. The government say, `We want to support employment in country racing clubs, or in licensed clubs.' But, if you are in the Internet industry employing people, bad luck—you lose your job. And where does the job go? It goes overseas. People who use the Internet in Australia will have access to it. Unless the government ultimately want to have their own personal Gestapo running into the rooms of private Australian citizens—checking what they have on the Internet every day and every night—it is impossible to stop.

This government has made an absolute mess of its regulatory arrangements on the Internet. Its obsession with censorship—and its obsession now with gambling—has made it a laughing stock around the world. That is why the opposition will oppose this bill on the second reading. If it gets through the second reading, through the committee stage—and what a fun time with amendments it will be—and to a third reading, we will oppose it on the third reading. If a majority of the Senate lets this bill through with convoluted, stupid amendments, let that be on the heads of the majority of the Senate who vote for it. There is no doubt that, within a short period of time, it will have to be revisited—whichever government is in office after the next election—because this bill is full of unintended consequences in one way or the other.

What I find delicious in one sense is that the Prime Minister has been caught out with his hypocrisy. He played up to the antigambling lobby, saying, `Well, we can't do anything about poker machines; they are the states' responsibility.' He has been caught out because his government does have the power constitutionally to substantially reduce the operation of poker machines, phone betting for horseracing, trotting and dog races, et cetera. He can completely wipe it out but, no, that got too hot and his hypocrisy was exposed. So we will get some convoluted amendments to try to exempt those parts of the gambling industry.

The Prime Minister is now saying that there is good gambling and bad gambling. It is a stupid position for the leader of our country to take—to pick and choose between different forms of gambling. I have greater respect for those who are totally opposed to all forms of gambling. There are people in certain churches in Australia who oppose all forms of gambling and say it is bad. The glorious history of the old Methodist Church—

Senator SCHACHT —I do not know how Senator Ferguson ended up in the Methodist Church—that is a contradiction in terms. Nevertheless, I know he comes from Yorke Peninsula, and so does my wife. They all grew up in the Methodist Church together, and the Methodist Church has an outstanding and consistent history of being opposed to gambling. I was on the board of 5KA in South Australia in the early 1980s. We owned 20 per cent of a radio station, and the Methodist Church owned 80 per cent. They had a very strict rule that they would not take any form of advertising from lotteries or from the TAB because it was against their philosophy on gambling. I have to say as a civil libertarian—as a Labor Party person—I was more interested in the revenue, but they voted consistently, `No, no, no. There will be no promotion of gambling.'

I have great respect for those people, because they are consistent. I also have respect for those who take a civil libertarian view, which I think has been eloquently expressed by Senator Greig. You should have a right as an individual to choose to gamble. But I have no respect for the position of the Prime Minister, who has tried to have it both ways and has now been caught very badly indeed. He deserves to be condemned. In one sense I hope the bill goes through with all these convoluted amendments, because it will expose in the months ahead the stupidity of them. It will expose to the Australian people that those who want to interfere in the private lives of Australians and pick and choose will get their fingers well and truly caught in the meat grinder in the end, and they will be exposed as not being able to deliver.

One of the reasons why the Prime Minister does not want to go near the issue of poker machines and state governments is that he knows that poker machines now provide a significant proportion of state revenue. Many of us may say that there are too many poker machines. It has been said before in this debate that we have more poker machines per capita in this country than in any other country in the world, apparently. What has happened is that state governments are now relying on the revenue from poker machines as a form of taxation. What state governments have done and should be criticised for is that, over the last 30 years, every chance they have had to make themselves popular with their own voters by reducing some useful state taxes, they have rotted their own tax base. They complain to the federal government, `You've got to give us more money; we don't have enough tax money,' or cut services or, in this case, rely on gambling taxes but not admit they are a source of income.

I do not think we should help state governments. If they are mad enough to cut good taxes and reduce taxes elsewhere and are now trapped into introducing and relying on gambling taxes to get their budgets into order, that is a situation they have made. It ought to be recognised that we have a problem in this country that is of the state governments' own making. They are now dependent upon the spread of poker machines and all other forms of gambling, because this is a form of taxation that they think the public does not know about and it is not the same as having a tax on an item of sale, a land tax, a company tax, a wealth tax or a death duty. Remember when all the states, led by Bjelke-Petersen, said, `Death duties are terrible and we will get rid of them'? All the states went along with it because no state could stand to be out of it and then the federal government gave it away. That rotted the tax base of the states.

So what do we have instead? We have something 100 times more iniquitous in many ways and antisocial: gambling taxes. Death duties have been replaced with a gambling tax. A gambling tax has done a lot more damage to Australia, and the gambling in our society has done a lot more damage to individuals, than death duties ever did. But the state governments said, `Yippee! We'll make ourselves popular with the voters and get rid of death duties.' They replaced them with the spread of gambling and, in particular, poker machines.

It has been a dreadful outcome and all state governments, both Labor and Liberal, in my view, deserve to be condemned. They of course keep coming back to the federal government to say, `We want an increase in tax here; give us more revenue.' I remember one of Bjelke-Petersen's more famous sayings was, `The only good tax is a Commonwealth tax.' The state governments want us to raise the taxes and they want us to give them the money to spend how they like, without responsibility. That is what some states have been into. The one area in which they have let taxes go up is, as I said, gambling. If the Prime Minister were really fair dinkum, he would say to the states, `Let's get a program going to genuinely reduce the level of gambling in this country.' That will require compensation. It will require a tax somewhere else to raise the lost revenue. But, no, he will never be near that, except to put a GST on everybody that, again, hits low and middle income earners adversely.

This is a bill that I would not normally have spoken on, but I have to say it was the delicious irony of where this government has placed itself. Above all, I would have thought that some members of the Liberal Party had a Liberal philosophy that the states should not interfere in the lives of individual people. This would have been the John Stuart Mill view of the world, the Burkean view of the world or the Hobhouse view of the world—all well-known philosophers in English liberal thought over the last 200 years. I suspect that there is not one member of the Liberal Party now who would know the philosophy of those three people. They would probably think they are the half-back flank for the Sydney Swans. If there were one Liberal Party member who believed in the philosophy of any of those three, particularly John Stuart Mill and Hobhouse, they would be saying that this bill is against all the notions of individual liberty; this is state interference. This is something that Bob Menzies would never have copped. He would understand the philosophy of the Liberal Party. Often we in the Labor Party are accused as socialists, wanting to interfere in the lives of individuals.

Senator Woodley —Not for a long time.

Senator SCHACHT —We were accused of it and still are accused of it, but I do not think there is any connection between—

Senator SCHACHT —I am a social democrat and I believe in the broad philosophy, but as a social democrat I also believe in individual freedom and the right of the citizen to have choice and not be imposed on by the neo far Right that is now running the Liberal Party. This is an example of it.

This legislation will not work. It has been introduced for populist reasons, to try to cater to a section of the community who are complaining about the widespread use of gambling. The government will not put up a proposal to deal with gambling per se; it uses this bill—and now the government has been caught out. I look forward to some Liberal somewhere standing up in this debate defending individual liberty. Senator Coonan is suggesting that she may do that. I understand when she got elected to the Senate that she was in the small `l' liberal camp but in a recent preselection had to change sides. Nevertheless, I look forward to her words. I understand that inside the Liberal Party there is a group called the John Stuart Mill Society.

Senator SCHACHT —So there is a John Stuart Mill Society. Where are they? Where are they speaking in the Liberal Party today on issues of individual liberty and trying to stop government interference in personal lives? They are nowhere to be seen. This conservative government does not believe in that philosophy anymore. This government has drifted out to the Right and believes that it has a right to interfere in the lives of ordinary Australians in a capricious way and sometimes for political advantage. That is why we have had previous attempts here on Internet censorship—absurd attempts to, I think, cater for the views of Senator Harradine. At that stage, the government probably needed his vote on something.

Senator Ian Campbell —You voted against political advertising. What sort of censorship is that?

Senator SCHACHT —The issue we have before us is that this government cannot outline a philosophy on the freedom of the individual anymore. That is how far the Liberal Party has sunk. That is how far it has descended into a seething collection of self-interest and wedge politics. It is a very big descent. It is disgraceful that the government is here with this sort of bill.

Senator Ian Campbell said that I supported banning paid political advertising years ago. I certainly did, and I still support that. I will tell you why. Because I do not think that in a democracy it is fair to have a society where one group of people have large amounts of money to buy their way and to put their political view onto the forum of the media. There ought to be controls on the amount of money spent on elections. I think that is even in line with a John Stuart Mill Society view of a civilised society—guaranteeing the right of an individual. This Liberal Party supports the right of big money to buy big influence to get outcomes in an election. If you have $1 million to give to the Liberal Party, you can buy that influence; if you have $10 to be a candidate, you have no influence—and we all know the way that works in modern media.

I do not think there was any contradiction. We were not interfering in the lives of individuals; we were actually trying to constrain corporate organisations from buying political influence. In that proposal we provided that all political parties, any individual, would get some access to free advertising to put their view. There is nothing more democratic than that, Senator Ian Campbell. You do not like the idea that individuals—

Senator Ian Campbell —You like the state controlling free speech.

Senator SCHACHT —I believe in free speech; you believe in paid speech. You believe that the biggest bag at the top end of town buys more influence and has bigger control. I do not believe in that.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—Order! Comments should go through the chair, please.

Senator SCHACHT —What we have now, Senator Ian Campbell, is you and your Prime Minister trying to show that you are concerned about gambling. Like many other proposals the Prime Minister has put forward in the last couple of years, this bill has no consistency. There is no philosophical basis for the Liberal Party. We are going to oppose this bill. I will be interested to see whether it gets through the Senate. In one sense, I will laugh cynically if this bill gets through. If it gets through, it will do no good to the reputation of this chamber and the reputation of this parliament, but it will do great damage to the reputation of this government—and, if that is the final outcome, I think that will be good. You are a government without reputation. You are a government without a philosophy. You are nothing but a government based on going to the lowest common denominator on wedge politics, and your government is full of hypocrisy in doing so.

We will wait to see the final outcome. I understand some of the minor parties have a range of views on this. If you fall for the government's three-card trick on this bill, you will have to stand to be counted on the joke that this has become. Defeat this bill. Throw it out. Let's deal properly with the broad issue of gambling and its impact in Australia. This bill does not deal with that. This bill is hypocritical and a joke. It ought to be absolutely defeated.