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Thursday, 20 September 2001
Page: 27525


Senator MARK BISHOP (1:46 PM) —As I outlined before, and for the sake of those Independent senators in the room, I will advise that there has been some discussion between the government and the opposition—and I think the Australian Democrats—in respect of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill 2001. This matter was listed at another place on the order sheet. The government sought that it be changed to non-controversial and the opposition has cooperated in that process. We are still keen for our second reading amendment to be put and discussed, so the sin that was committed before is repeated in this instance because I will be seeking leave to incorporate my remarks and then speak to the amendment that has been circulated in my name. I so seek leave.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

Today the Senate is presented with a Bill that amends the Interactive Gambling Act 2001. The Interactive Gambling Act passed the parliament several months ago in an ill-conceived attempt by the Government to ban Australians from accessing a few reputable and well-regulated Australian casino sites.

Labor outlined a detailed policy response to interactive gambling, which, unlike the Government's ineffective Act, would have seriously limited problem gambling by Australians on the internet. Unfortunately the Government did not follow our lead.

This Bill today addresses some unintentional effects of the Interactive Gambling Act. Had the Government not responded to the considerable criticisms of the Senate Environment, Communications, IT and the Arts Legislation Committee inquiry, a good deal more amendment than this would have been necessary, so flawed was the Government's Bill.

My memory of the rather extensive debate in the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 was that Senator Alston said the Government was motivated by one primary or dominant consideration:

· Not to restrict existing land-based gambling facilities because they were

1. already in existence and

2. regulated by the States

· Prevent further extension of gambling into new areas such as cyberspace as a tool of social policy.

The basic justification put by the government was to at least prevent the further growth of gambling problems in new forms of communications.

During the committee stage of that act the government introduced amendments which prohibited the advertising of interactive gambling services. Those amendments were agreed to without debate.

One can make a number of points of that new part 7A of the Act relating to the prohibition of advertising of interactive gambling services.

Firstly this appears to be only the second time the Commonwealth parliament has imposed a blanket prohibition on the advertising of a particular product or service.

The only other example or precedent lies in the area of prohibiting tobacco advertising and that legislative prohibition took place only after

· Extensive community debate

· Consideration of state and territory laws

· Review of Commonwealth and state existing policy.

The essential rationale for tobacco advertising prohibition was a community health and protection of children debate.

In any event there was extensive community/press/parliamentary debate. In part 7A of this Act there was no such debate.

Accordingly one can properly conclude from a government perspective that the prohibitions on advertising are no longer considered a threat to the principle of free speech in this country.

In moving the amendments to the Interactive Gambling Bill on 28 June 01 Minister Alston said and I quote “the advertising ban would only apply to interactive gambling services that are banned by the bill”.

However, it has since come to the government's attention that the Act may inadvertently prohibit the advertising of land-based casinos which also provide interactive gambling services to overseas customers. Section 61BA (1)(e) defines an interactive gambling advertisement as any writing, visual image or audible message that promotes any words that are closely associated with an interactive gambling service.

If a land-based casino uses its name for its legitimate interactive gambling services, then there is a chance that the name will become closely associated with the interactive gambling service. This would then prevent the casino from using the name in advertising its land-based services.

So the government policy position behind this bill is clear. It is to permit not prohibit those land based gambling facilities that also offer interactive gambling services to overseas customers the ability to advertise those services. This is of course a commercial necessity because it allows the offeror of interactive gambling services to overseas customers the ability to draw upon the brand name of the land-based facility.

This is of course commercial common sense but contrary to the governments stated policy of limiting the spread of social harm by limiting the spread of interactive gambling.

So this bill under discussion today represents the first big backflip over the Interactive Gambling Act 2001.

The prohibition on advertising was so critical that the government introduced a then new part 7A into the act and it was passed by agreement with the minor parties without parliamentary debate.

We now see the unintended consequences of an intellectually slothful approach to policy making in the form of this amending bill.

So to summarise the position of the government with respect to the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 and this amending bill

· It breaches long standing commitments to protection of free speech

· It bans the advertising of interactive gambling services to overseas customers

· Because it refused to engage in parliamentary debate the government cast its net too wide and now has to bring in an amending bill

· This amending bill now permits the advertising of gambling services to overseas customers where such gambling services are associated with land based gambling facilities

· The policy position behind this amending bill is at complete odds with the policy position as outlined by Senator Alston in the Interactive Gambling Act 2001

· The amending bill has neither coherent nor intellectual strength as it is counter to the governments stated justification to limiting the spread of gambling on the internet.

The Opposition will not oppose this Bill, however I would like to reiterate the reasons why we believe the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 was a big mistake, why the Government's policy approach is flawed and why the Act is totally inappropriate and untenable.

My concerns, and I have detailed them before in this place, are as follows:

1. The Interactive Gambling Act does not prevent Australians from accessing Internet Gambling services.

2. The easiest sites for Australians to access are overseas sites, some of which are run by criminal and Mafia elements. It is nearly impossible to distinguish reputable sites from those of dubious probity.

3. Problem gamblers are likely to be the ones who will be desperate enough to circumvent restrictions on accessing Australian and foreign sites, and will most likely fall prey to unscrupulous operators who will not limit expenditure. Strictly regulated Australian sites would have reduced gambling problems more than this Act will.

4. The Act permits Australians access to internet wagering and wagering is hardly immune from gambling problems.

Turning then to my first point, the Interactive Gambling Act does not prevent Australians from accessing Internet Gambling services. There are a number of reasons for this.

· The Act stops Australians from accessing the safest sites in the world but allows them to access the most dangerous sites.

· If Australians want to access the services of Australian or foreign IGSPs, they are still be able to, even if those IGSPs claim not to accept Australian customers. Australians can still access reputable Australian and foreign IGSPs even if they refuse to accept Australian customers.

· The sanction in the Act for providing interactive gambling services to Australians is not a very persuasive deterrent and is unlikely to be enforced. This will especially be the case as the Government has failed to provide additional funding for the already under-resourced Australian Federal Police.

· There are significant numbers of disreputable foreign sites of dubious probity which Australians will be able to access. Some gamblers might favour those sites, particularly those susceptible to problem gambling.

This leads me to my second point that the easiest sites for Australian to access will be overseas sites, some of which are run by criminal and Mafia elements. It is nearly impossible to distinguish reputable sites from those of dubious probity.

Despite the Minister himself stating in a Ministerial media release on interactive gambling that there are “very disturbing examples of how Internet gambling organisations actually feed the addictions of problem gamblers”, it is not Australian gambling operators; rather, it is offshore operators who are engaging in such activity. And the Government has left Australian gamblers at the mercy of these gambling sites that feed addictions.

Australian sites comprise less than 2 per cent of the Internet gambling sites worldwide. Some protection this Act offers. All the Government has done is prevent Australian gamblers from accessing the strictly regulated sites.

This leads to my third point that it is problem gamblers that are likely to be the ones who will be desperate enough to circumvent restrictions on accessing Australian and foreign sites, and will most likely fall prey to unscrupulous operators who will not limit expenditure.

My fourth and final point is that Australians can still access internet wagering. Wagering is hardly immune from causing gambling problems.

The Government excluded interactive wagering from the Act despite the fact that wagering is as much a problem in terms of problem gambling as any other form of gambling.

This Government has never been concerned to protect problem gamblers. If it had been so concerned it would have done something during its last two terms to address the real problem - the land-based forms of gambling that are causing huge social problems.

The Government couldn't even come up with a sensible and effective policy for interactive gambling that would minimise interactive gambling to the greatest extent possible. Even when we told them what it was. They even initiated a Productivity Commission inquiry that said the same thing we did.

The most notable thing that the Act does is prevent Australians from accessing the world's best, safest and most consumer-friendly interactive gambling sites - the Australian ones.

Wagering is not any safer than any other form of gambling. Wagering is not immune to the social effects of problem gambling.

The Opposition took a very different approach to the issue of interactive gambling. Our primary concern was and is to ensure that problem gambling arising from interactive gambling is kept to an absolute minimum.

We remain concerned that the Government's Act will not control or limit problem gambling in the online environment.

The Opposition continues to believe that the most effective way to manage interactive and Internet gambling is, overwhelmingly, to have State and Territory cooperation in formulating and implementing a national regulatory regime.

There is no evidence to support the Government's conclusion that its ban will limit problem gambling.


Senator MARK BISHOP —I thank the Senate. There is an amendment circulated in my name on behalf of the opposition in respect of the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill. I now formally move the amendment:

At the end of the motion, add:

“but the Senate:

(a) maintains that the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 remains unworkable, internally inconsistent and hypocritical legislation which:

(i) does not provide strong regulation of interactive gambling as the most practical and effective way of reducing social harm arising from gambling;

(ii) may exacerbate problem gambling in Australia by barring access to regulated on-line gambling services with in-built safeguards but allows access to unregulated offshore on-line gambling sites that do not offer consumer protection or probity;

(iii) does not extend current regulatory and consumer protection requirements applying to off-line and land-based casinos, clubs or wagering venues to on-line casinos and on-line wagering facilities;

(iv) damages Australia's international reputation for effective consumer protection laws and strong, workable gambling regulations;

(v) singles out one form of gambling in an attempt to create the impression of placating community concern about the adverse social consequences of gambling but does not address more prevalent forms of gambling in Australian society; and

(vi) is not technology neutral or technically feasible;

(b) calls on the Government to show national leadership on this issue by:

(i) addressing harm minimisation and consumer protection as well as criminal issues that may arise from on-line gambling;

(ii) ensuring a quality gambling product through financial probity checks on providers and their staff;

(iii) maintaining the integrity of games and the proper working of gaming equipment;

(iv) providing mechanisms to exclude those not eligible to gamble under Australian law;

(v) implementing problem gambling controls, such as exclusion from facilities, expenditure thresholds, no credit betting, and the regular provision of transaction records;

(vi) introducing measures to minimise any criminal activity linked to interactive gambling;

(vii) providing effective privacy protection for on-line gamblers;

(viii) containing social costs by ensuring that adequate ongoing funds are available to assist those with gambling problems;

(ix) addressing revenue issues that impact upon state government decisions relating to interactive gambling;

(x) establishing consistent standards for all interactive gambling operators;

(xi) examining international protocols with the aim of achieving multilateral agreements on sports betting and other forms of interactive gambling;

(xii) ensuring appropriate standards in advertising, in particular, to prevent advertising from targeting minors;

(xiii) investigating mechanisms to ensure that some of the benefits of on-line gambling accrue more directly to the local community;

(xiv) working with State and Territory governments to ensure that on-line and interactive gambling operators meet the highest standards of probity and auditing through licensing agreements;

(xv) seeking co-regulation of interactive gambling by establishing a national regulatory framework that provides consumer safeguards and industry Codes of Practice; and

(xvi) coordinating the development of a co-regulatory regime through the Ministerial Council comprising of relevant State and Federal Ministers”.

Paragraph (i) of the amendment condemns the government for failing to adopt the most practical and effective way of reducing social harm arising from gambling by not choosing to strictly regulate the domestic industry. Instead, the government's Interactive Gambling Act bans a few strictly regulated Australian sites. Paragraph (ii) expresses the opposition's concern that I discussed earlier in my incorporated remarks that the impact of the act may be to exacerbate problem gambling in Australia by barring access to regulated online gambling services with in-built safeguards. The act still allows access to unregulated offshore online gambling sites that do not offer consumer protection or probity, placing those most vulnerable to problem gambling at an alarmingly high risk. As I discussed earlier, it leaves Australians at the mercy of unscrupulous gambling operators who feed addictions.

Paragraph (iii) condemns the government for not extending current regulatory and consumer protection requirements applying to offline and land based casinos, clubs or wagering venues to online casinos and online wagering facilities. Paragraph (iv) expresses the opposition's concern that this act damages Australia's international reputation for effective consumer protection laws and strong workable gambling regulation. Australia has a fine reputation internationally for its regulation of gambling. By failing to regulate this industry, the government is causing further damage to Australia's international reputation.

Paragraph (v) condemns the government for singling out one form of gambling in an attempt to placate community concern about the adverse social consequences of gambling. The government has singled out a form of gambling that has been around for some time now but has not revealed itself as a significant cause of gambling problems. This act was an attempt to detract the public's attention away from the real gambling issues related to more prevalent forms of gambling which the government has done nothing about.

Paragraph (vi) expresses the opposition's view that the act is not technology neutral or technically feasible. Even the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts has contradicted his own policy guidelines for the regulation of content of online services that he announced in July 1997 with the act.

Part (b) of the second reading amendment calls on the government to take a new approach, the approach recommended by Labor numerous times over the last 20 months. This is a comprehensive approach that will restrict problem interactive gambling to an absolute minimum, and the elements of our recommended approach may be found in paragraph (b).