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Thursday, 28 June 2001
Page: 25334

Senator ALSTON (Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts) (10:35 AM) —I rise to conclude the second reading debate on a very important piece of legislation. With the Interactive Gambling Bill 2001, the government is taking a stand to prevent the escalation of the harmful effects of gambling on the Australian community. Australia is already a world leader in the problem gambling stakes and, of course, among the number of serious problem gamblers are many of the states of Australia. In 1999, the Productivity Commission found that there were some 290,000 problem gamblers in Australia with 130,000 classified as severe and the likelihood of the introduction of interactive services was regarded as constituting a quantum increase in accessibility.

Other statistics suggest that interactive gambling is the fastest growing web based business in the world. US investment firm Beare-Stern reports in March 2001 that the number of Internet gambling web sites has doubled in the past year from 600 to 700 sites operating last year, to 1,200 to 1,400 in March. This represents two new sites coming online every day. They also estimate that online gambling revenue could grow from $US1.5 billion to $US5 billion over the next two to three years. In fact, I have seen statistics that suggest that 4.5 million Americans have already gambled online and, on any day, over one million Americans already have the habit.

The government is very concerned about the potential for interactive gambling services to increase problem gambling in Australia. While it is a matter for individual countries to decide how they will approach interactive gambling, Australia's status as one of the world's leading problem gambling nations demands that we take decisive action to protect the most vulnerable in the community. It is fair to say that over recent weeks and months there has been enormous public discussion about the ramifications of the government's approach and about precisely what constitutes serious forms of gambling, to what extent they are repetitive and addictive, and to what extent they will exacerbate social misery. We already know from the Productivity Commission that, on average, problem gamblers lose about $12,000 a year. Anyone who saw the 7.30 Report would have seen the devastating tale told by two homeless men who estimated that they had both lost hundreds of thousand of dollars from gambling activities, and they had lost their families as well. There is no doubt that we are looking at not just aquantum increase in accessibility but also a quantum increase in social misery.

We have made some modifications that have recognised that there are degrees of social seriousness in what can occur through interactive technology. Certainly, sports betting or wagering comes into the category of activities in which a lot of people might kid themselves that they have more skill than is demonstrated in the real world—nonetheless, we all live in hope. Many sporting activities do not fall into the mindlessly repetitive category. Similarly, one can draw a significant distinction between products like instant scratchies and keno type activities in which there is a very high turnover and in which you are able sometimes to win but, more often, lose a lot of money in a very short time. Accordingly, the government is prepared to draw those distinctions and to focus on the serious area of social misery, where there are very few redeeming features and where people are almost certain to lose their money. They might win in the short term—I suppose that everyone has had the experience of cracking a jackpot—but, if you stay around for a bit longer, you will normally give it all back. There is no doubt at all that the billions of dollars that are lost from that sort of activity are lost because of the proliferation of mindless and repetitive activity.

That highlights the deathly silence on the part of the Labor Party. We know that Mr Beazley has been soft on drugs. We know that he has not been willing to do anything about pornography and paedophilia on the Internet. And now we have this extraordinary and callous indifference to what is a very serious social problem. In other words, we have weak leadership from the leader of the major opposition party in this country—a pusillanimous performance, one might say. It is because he is too lazy, because the IT nerds have rolled him in the caucus, because basically he does not bother, or because he is simply being opportunistic and he thinks that there might be a few votes out there from standing up for technology. But in the process he is totally ignoring the misery of ordinary Australian families.

I looked at what might be the most appropriate way of characterising Mr Beazley's behaviour, and I agonised long and hard over whether it really constituted sophistry or casuistry. `Sophistry' is the use of false arguments intended to deceive. When we hear Mr Beazley interviewed on this matter, he always avoids the central issue, which is: why on earth do you want to simply sit back and allow an electronic poker machine in every home and every lounge room in the country? He skates around all that and says, `There are inconsistencies, because you are not treating Australians the same way as you are treating the rest of the world,' or, `You are drawing distinctions between this and that.' But he always avoids the central issue: what redeeming features are there in allowing electronic gaming activities, given what we have seen from the enormous explosion of activity in poker machines in some of the states? The states are now very embarrassed by that and I hope that they start to do something about it, either through a uniform national code or through some of the proposals that they are talking about. But Mr Beazley uses these things as an excuse for not addressing the real issue.

The proper term is probably `casuistry', because that involves resolving problems of conscience or duty with clever but false reasoning. In other words, Mr Beazley pretends that he is concerned. We get a bit of hand-wringing—`Yeah, it's a big social problem, but we are concerned about this, that and the other; we think that the states should do more harm minimisation; and we would like to see this, that and the other.' We never see an alternative blueprint, let alone policy, because we do not get policy from the Labor Party. That is a classic example of dereliction of duty. People can talk about Mr Beazley being prolix, which is really just a euphemism for `waffle'. In many ways, the more appropriate term is `euphuism', which involves the use of high-flown language, in this case to disguise the policy vacuum—the simple refusal to tackle issues that are of concern to the Australian public.

Mr Beazley needs to understand that good government is about values and doing what you can to address serious social problems, not just finding cute technical, peripheral reasons why you will not address the main game. That is what the debate is about. Everyone in the chamber understands that things need to be done and that there may need to be compromises, but the central issue is: why on earth do you want to allow an explosion of social misery in the homes of ordinary Australians? That is the issue that the Labor Party has consistently ducked from the outset.

We acknowledge that the states and territories have been dragging the chain for a long time. They have not been able to produce a nationally accepted code for regulating online gambling. The AUS model promoted by the Northern Territory has not been endorsed by all states—in fact, we had great difficulty in even getting a copy of certain material—so it is necessary for the Commonwealth to provide strong leadership on the issue.

There have been a number of people on our side who have made very sensible contributions and refinements, and I pay tribute to Senator Tambling for his willingness to address this issue in a way that I think does achieve the central outcomes. We are not in the business of simply protecting people because of the pressure that is brought to bear; we are in the business of trying to identify what the social problems are and what governments can do about them. I would also say that people like Senator Boswell and Cameron Thompson, the member for Blair, have also been very active in taking a very close look at the difference between general lottery activities and things like scratch-its. Whilst there might be a benefit to some from the decision to exempt those products from the exemption, the fact remains that there is a very significant qualitative difference.

The bill will make it an offence for gambling operators to provide their services to persons located in Australia, and fines of over $1 million a day will apply to bodies corporate. The bill will also establish a complaints scheme for interactive gambling services hosted offshore. Australians will be able to make complaints to the Broadcasting Authority about offshore gambling services on the Internet and have these services added to approved Internet content filtering devices. The ban will apply to online casino gaming and similar services, and these include current and future services such as Internet casinos, Internet poker machines, ball by ball wagering on sporting events via a digital broadcast and online instant lotteries. All of these services have repetitive and potentially addictive qualities which are associated with problem gambling. Interactive betting after a sporting event has commenced will be within the prohibition. This means, for example, that customers will not be able to place bets on a football, tennis or cricket match after the match has commenced. We are all familiar with spread betting and ball by ball activities, which I think are just a manifestation of antisocial behaviour.

Senator Tambling has expressed concern that people will not be able to place bets on football matches after the season has started or on a cricket series after the series has commenced. That is not correct. People will be able to place bets on the result of a football season, tennis tournament or cricket series after the season, tournament or series has commenced. These are not individual sporting events but series of events. People can also place bets on the results of a football match after the season has started and before the match has started. This is made clear in the supplementary explanatory memorandum. Online scratch tickets and other types of rapid, repetitive online lotteries will also fall within the ban. These services provide rapid, instant returns and are very close in concept and design to poker machines and casino games.

Senator Tambling has also mentioned state and territory activities in relation to developing a national uniform set of regulatory standards. The only initiative of which I am aware in this respect is the AUS model being sponsored by the Northern Territory but, given that it does not have the support of all the states and territories, it is simply not a viable alternative to the government's bill. In any case, the regulatory approach only serves to provide a stimulus to interactive gambling. There is no reason to think the AUS model could control the growth of interactive gambling any more than the states have been able to control the growth of poker machines. In fact, it might simply provide an incentive for people to bypass those regimes altogether because they judge them to be too tight in not meeting their addictive needs, so this bill focuses on the providers of gambling services rather than the users. An approach that applies an offence to gamblers themselves may force problem gamblers underground, which would lessen the likelihood of them or their families seeking assistance.

The bill also has a low impact on third parties such as financial institutions and Internet service providers. It does not mandate any blocking by ISPs or banks to prevent access to interactive gambling services. The government considers that these measures impose too great a regulatory burden and would be very likely to be subject to circumvention. The bill applies only to the provision of interactive gambling services to people in Australia. It is designed to address the specific problem gambling issues that exist in Australia. Other countries must legislate to address problem gambling as it exists in their own jurisdictions.

I am aware of criticisms that the bill will force Australians to use offshore Internet gambling services. The government has addressed these concerns in the following manner. An amendment will be moved to ban the advertising of interactive gambling services, which will limit the access of offshore providers to the Australian market. An amendment will be moved to extend the offence in the bill to offshore operators, which will deter them from signing up Australian customers. Australian customers will be cautious about using offshore services, in any case, because these services are often unregulated and there is no guarantee of payouts being honoured. If the local industry is not allowed to develop, it is unlikely there will be a significant uptake of interactive gambling by Australians in any case. A survey on attitudes to a ban commissioned by the Department of Family and Community Services found that only one per cent of people would play a gambling site on the Internet if they knew a ban was in place.

The government does not support an approach that seeks uniform national regulation of interactive gambling. The regulatory approach provides, in effect, a stimulus to the growth of this form of activity. Efforts by states and territories to reach agreement on new national standards for regulating Internet gambling have not succeeded, despite the Prime Minister's announcement of the Commonwealth's concerns in December 1999, and there is no reason to think that the states and territories can restrict the growth of new forms of gambling any more than they have been able to do with poker machines.

I simply conclude by saying that this debate provides the last opportunity for the Labor Party—Mr Beazley, no doubt, will be hiding under a desk somewhere, but Senator Bishop has the opportunity to get up now—to explain, once and for all, why it is not prepared to do what can be done to stop the proliferation of electronic poker machines into the homes of ordinary Australians. And don't just give us all the other reasons that there are inconsistencies, there might be a few problems and technology keeps moving—we know all of those. In fact, the bill has a number of discretions contained within it which will enable us to at least keep up with new technological developments. But the central issue is: why won't you take a stand on principle? Why won't you come out and say that you do regard this as a social evil—a social issue and not an IT issue? Don't be hijacked by the Senator Lundys of this world who have been running around for years saying, `The Internet's sacrosanct. You can't touch it. Don't do anything about it.' That is not the approach adopted around the world these days. People know there are excesses from any new technology and that governments have an obligation to do what they can. We are not in the business of closing down the Internet. We are not in the business of stifling legitimate activities.

Our ban on pornography and paedophilia on the Internet, to the extent that it applies to Australian web sites, has been totally effective. Where complaints have been made, take-down notices have been issued. I have forgotten the precise number, but it is well over 100. The sites have been largely on paedophilia, not just on pornography, and we have been able to take those down. Surely that is a major social advance. Who wants to stand up and argue in favour of allowing that sort of activity to go unchecked? There is only one party that does, and that is the Labor Party. Having made that horrific mistake on Internet content regulation, why compound the felony this time around? At least get up and tell us where you stand, and why on earth you cannot support that part of the bill that attempts to do something about stopping the spread of interactive gaming activities into the homes of ordinary Australians. The answer is that it is all too hard.

This will be the major problem the Labor Party will have in the lead-up to the next election. They are not prepared to take a stance on issues because it might offend someone. They would much prefer to roll themselves up into a little ball and let the government take the flak. They might be behind the scenes, quietly cheering and saying that in their heart of hearts they agree and, when they go to church on Sunday and are told how bad this is, they say, `Don't worry; the government is going to fix it up.' But, of course, they will not say anything. They will just sit on their hands and look at all the flak the government will cop from various interest groups, whether it be the gambling proprietors, whether it be the horseracing industry or whether it be newsagents. Every time there is a bit of a break-out, they will say, `Isn't that good. This government is getting problems of its own.' And what will they do? They will just keep quiet. They do not have the gumption to stand up and say why they do not think this is a major social issue for Australians.

The Labor Party are a value-free zone. They are not in the business of trying to control activities, irrespective of whether they think they are socially deleterious and irrespective of whether they think some technological solutions can be applied. What will really concern Australians in six months time is Labor's abdication of responsibility—this leadership from the rear, and this willingness to sit on the fence whenever possible. That is why I say that Mr Beazley deserves an award for world's best practice in pusillanimous performance. I suspect that today will simply reinforce that position. But I am confident that, despite the Labor Party's craven capitulation, we will be able to achieve some real progress to protect the families of Australia.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Mark Bishop's) be agreed to.