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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 10370

Senator DI NATALE (Victoria) (20:29): We are talking about the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and related bills today because poker machine addiction destroys people's lives. Lives like that of Katherine Natt from Adelaide, a young mum who committed suicide because of her pokie addiction. It destroyed her marriage, it cost her financially and it cost her her family. She left behind two children, the youngest two years old. The South Australian coroner found that Katherine Natt's suicide:

… was a direct result of her inability to cope with a poker machine addiction.

And there are many, many more.

Thankfully, there are others whose stories do not end quite as tragically as Katherine's. There are people like Tom Cummings, a 41-year-old father of three girls. Tom says:

I started gambling as a young man, in my mid twenties. The pokies were my poison of choice, and over a number of years I threw away close to $100,000. I also threw away my self respect, my state of mind and several relationships with people who had been very close to me.

Thankfully, Tom has used his experience to educate others and is now a blogger and a vocal advocate for gambling reform.

These people are typical of the many thousands of Australians who are addicted to poker machines. Australians are really big gamblers. We gamble $19 billion every year, which works out to about $1,200 for every single person in the country. Two-thirds of that—$12 billion—goes into the pokies. We have over 200,000 poker machines in Australia, and New South Wales has almost half of them. We have the seventh-highest number of these machines in the world. We like to think of ourselves as punching above our weight in many areas but, when it comes to poker machines, by world standards, we do punch above our weight. Many opponents of pokies say, 'Well, we should be focusing on online gambling, because that is where the real problem is.' But when 60 per cent of all gambling money goes into the pokies, unless you are prepared to do something about the pokies, you are not serious about problem gambling.

The reason we are having this debate is because poker machines are so addictive. For those of us who have not had the experience of falling under the pokies' spell—or any addiction, for that matter—it is hard to understand. We probably have as much difficulty imagining ourselves as pokies addicts as we would as heroin addicts or as crystal meth addicts, but the pokies have the capacity to ensnare anybody, because they are engineered to do so. They are manufactured by an industry that has spent literally billions of dollars in ensuring that their product is as addictive and as profitable as possible.

It is worth reflecting on how gambling addiction works. Gambling works on the brain in the same or a similar way as other addictions, such as drugs like nicotine, cocaine and so on. Just like addictive drugs, gambling hijacks the brain's pleasure centre. That is why so many people lose self-control. It manipulates our brain circuitry, which has evolved to produce a pleasurable response to things such as food and so on—things that are necessary for the survival of our species. But the pleasure centres in our brain do not just respond to a reward. It is actually the anticipation of the reward that counts, so a surprise reward is much more powerful than a pleasurable experience that occurs at regular intervals. Animal experiments have shown this time and time again.

Pokies exploit this evolutionary wiring in our brain. Whenever you win on the pokies, what is happening is you are activating those cells in the pleasure centre of your brain, the ones that anticipate future rewards and that are looking for some sort of pattern. The catch with the pokies is that there is no pattern, because the rewards from pokies occur randomly. That means that our brains go into overdrive and, when we get the occasional unexpected win, we get huge pleasure from it, precisely because it is unexpected. You will sometimes hear of problem gamblers talking about entering a trance-like state and experiencing a sense of euphoria with each win, and that is the reason for it. It is because our brains are wired in that way.

The pokies industry understand this process all too well. That is why they design the machines in the way that they do. The frequency of wins, the notion of losses dressed up as wins, the sounds and the visual displays—all of those things have a very specific intent: to make you stay longer, to make you come back more often and to make you experience that sense of euphoria until it becomes an compulsion you cannot control. The tactics of the pokies industry are essentially like those of the tobacco industry. In the same way that the tobacco industry looked at cigarettes as nicotine delivery devices, the pokies industry sees pokies as a form of delivering electronic hypnosis, if you like, designed to empty the pockets of problem gamblers.

The pokies industry has very similar tactics to the tobacco industry. In the 1950s and 1960s the tobacco industry tried to immunise themselves from any government regulation by funding things like medical research centres and hospitals. It is unthinkable now, but that is how it worked back then. It was a very deliberate tactic. Whenever regulation was proposed in the way of tobacco control, they were labelled an attack on the health sector and all of the things that the tobacco industry funded. The pokies industry today does the same thing. It throws a few crumbs out at the pubs and clubs and it makes the same arguments. And, just like the tobacco industry, the pokies industry will lie, deceive and manipulate to get its way and to protect its profits ahead of vulnerable people. It does not only ignore the established facts; it creates its own. It creates new facts.

Thankfully, we have got a sound body of research in this area. We know that up to 15 per cent of the people who gamble weekly are 'problem gamblers'. We know that 40 per cent of the $12 billion lost to pokies every year, which comes to about $5 billion, comes from problem gamblers. And for every problem gambler there is a family suffering. There are young kids who are going hungry at night, there are businesses going bankrupt and there are marriages breaking down. That is what problem gambling means, yet the industry continues to dispute the facts.

The industry are clever; they know who to target. You just need to look at a map of where poker machine losses are highest. It is essentially a map of social disadvantage. The people who are losing most on pokies are those who can least afford it. In my home state of Victoria, the city of Greater Dandenong has the lowest median weekly earnings of any Melbourne municipality, but that is where each of its 944 poker machines takes in over $120,000 every year. That is $1,100 per person in that area.

The industry argues that this is just another form of entertainment, but what other forms of entertainment exist where you can lose thousands of dollars every hour? They say, 'Well, you are regulating; it's the nanny state gone mad.' But what choice do problem gamblers have when they find themselves in the grip of an addiction because their brain chemistry is going haywire.

People in this place do not understand addiction. Addiction is a disease. It is a medical process, a disease where people do not have choice. In that context, regulation is critical. The industry argues that cost is a huge barrier to reform—it is too expensive. How do they justify it? They pluck numbers from thin air. One day it is going to cost $3 billion to introduce mandatory precommitment. The next day it is $5 billion. When they are pressed about their costings, what do they say? 'Well, that is the cost of implementing mandatory precommitment on all machines immediately.' But no-one is suggesting that. What they have done is create their own policy; they have costed it and they have used it as a defence to say that reform is too expensive. A wonderful tactic!

Just like the tobacco industry, this is an industry that knows no shame. Thankfully, the Productivity Commission has managed to debunk many of these myths. They conducted a detailed examination of Australia's gambling industries. They handed down their findings in February 2010 and their analysis of the harms of poker machines makes for hair-raising reading.

Poker machines scattered around Australian towns and suburbs are right out of Las Vegas. The amount of money you can lose on them suits a casino high roller but it has no place in the local community. Machines can accept bets of $10 a spin—that is, $10 every couple of seconds—until you have lost thousands of dollars every hour. Sometimes the losses are even higher. Poker machines are not harmless fun. Clubs and pubs talk about them as a friendly, community activity. These are community hubs. But the reality is that these are mini casinos. Australian pokies are called casino-style poker machines in other countries for that reason. If you go into a casino you can spend $50 a spin on a machine. These are the semiautomatic weapons of the gambling world, and in the hands of problem gambler they are dangerous.

The jackpots offered by the machines are also engineered for maximum profit. You get high jackpots, more volatility, greater losses in a typical session. Remember what I said about unexpected rewards? That makes it even more addictive because you get a huge rush when you do win. Yes, it is true: most people do not spend $10 a spin. But the ability for a problem gambler to ramp up to such huge losses is a terrible risk, and it is a huge risk for those people who have an addiction.

We say, why should these machines be available at all? If most people bet a dollar or less per spin—90 per cent of recreational gamblers—then why have them? What is the point? In fact, the Productivity Commission said precisely the same thing. If you want to minimise the impact of problem gambling, you put dollar bet limits on all machines. You do not impact on recreational gamblers but what you do do is take away these semiautomatic weapons out of the hands of problem gamblers. We know it is the simplest, cheapest, most cost-effective method of addressing the problem. Why don't we have it? Because the industry hates it.

I pay tribute to my fellow senators, Nick Xenophon and Senator Madigan, for joining me in supporting a dollar betting limit on new machines. We will be amending this bill in order to make all machines $1 bet ready. We hope we can get the support of the parliament for that amendment.

In countries like New Zealand, the UK and others, there are strict limits on bets and jackpots. In the US, high-intensity machines—those casino-style machines—are restricted to casinos. That is where they belong. In Victoria, my home state, we were able to introduce bet limits, reducing the limit from $10 to $5. There was no outcry from the industry, it happened quickly, and we made a serious impact on problem gambling.

I acknowledge that we are having this debate today because of the unique nature of this parliament. Power-sharing governments do bring together people with different perspectives, people who can put issues that have been ignored by mainstream parties on the national agenda—and that is their strength. But the history of this reform is a case study in why people have lost faith with our mainstream political parties. We had the government and the opposition with the unique opportunity to get behind a reform, supported by the great majority of the Australian community, to improve the lives of problem gamblers. Instead, we saw the government renege on its promise to install mandatory precommitment and we saw it fold in the face of a relentless campaign from the pokies industry. I acknowledge that many good people in the ALP fought the good fight for meaningful reform and I especially acknowledge Minister Macklin for doing her best to achieve reform. But the sad fact is that many people within the ALP lacked the courage to take up a cashed-up lobby group, to take on the big end of town and to have the fight. If there was ever more evidence of a party that has been dominated now by the soulless apparatchiks of the New South Wales Right, people who stand for nothing, then this was it.

As for the opposition, they showed themselves once again to be a party with nothing positive to say, no positive contribution to the national debate and their only intention being to bring down the government. What was their response? Establish a working party, write a discussion paper and come up with a document that reads more like a brochure from the pokies industry than a serious contribution to the issue.

I listened with interest to Kevin Andrews, the member for Menzies, today saying that we need to respect the rights of the states to legislate in this area—this from the man who introduced the bill to overturn the Northern Territory's euthanasia laws. Hypocrisy knows no bounds when it comes to the opposition.

When legislation was finally presented before the parliament it was a sad, pale, watered-down version of the government's initial proposal, and we initially rejected it. I rejected it because I was worried that, by supporting the legislation, we would take it off the national agenda and move it to the never-never. I also thought we needed some time to try to negotiate a better outcome. On the first point it was pretty clear to me that the issue moved off the national agenda rather quickly. I had not realised how quickly in this place today's great moral challenge can turn into yesterday's news. It was clear to me that, without some more action on this bill, this issue was dead in the life of this parliament. In trying to negotiate something better we managed to get the establishment of a national research gambling institute, but it was clear that we were not going to get any more than that. Ultimately we did decide to support the bill because it is a small step in the right direction. It does not go anywhere near far enough, but I think its real strength is that, for the first time, the federal government has a role in poker machine reform.

There was a little twist in the story over the past few days. We saw again the industry stalking the corridors, managing to talk to MPs in this place and water down the bill a bit further, but to the industry I say thank you for showing me just how desperate you were to sink the bill. Knowing how hard you were fighting gave me some comfort that this legislation, as weak as it is, still means something. So thanks to the pokies industry for that.

This amended bill ultimately means that we will end up with mandatory-precommitment-ready machines for all new machines by 2014 and, by 2018, all machines old and new, with some exceptions for smaller venues. It means that at some point a government can turn on mandatory precommitment. It means the machines are networked and opens the door to a number of other reforms. We get a national gambling regulator, which gives a precedent for national involvement for a future government that will have the tools necessary to tackle the problem when they need to. The ATM limits are a positive step forward, although I do note that in Victoria we have no withdrawals in ATMs from poker machine venues. If the trial of mandatory precommitment goes ahead and we get the Productivity Commission analysis of the results, again we get more evidence to support the case that this is a reform that will work. With the establishment of the national gambling research centre we get to keep this issue on the national agenda and we get further evidence to counter the claims of this dishonest, grubby, dirty industry.

Problem gamblers need the help of this parliament. Problem gambling can be a wrecking ball through the life of a family. It can cost marriages. It can cost people's jobs. It can cost the family home. It drives people to crime and to suicide. There are clear public health and social justice imperatives to tackle pokies reform. The cost to the wider industry is also well known. It costs the nation billions of dollars each year—billions of dollars that could be going to much more productive pursuits. Poker machines have been carefully designed by the industry to be highly addictive—

Senator Xenophon: By design.

Senator DI NATALE: You are absolutely right, Senator Xenophon—and to efficiently empty the pockets of their customers. They are designed to create addiction. They are designed to create misery.

I thank many of the people in the community—the churches, those people who campaigned hard to get this reform through, the academic researchers like Charles Livingstone and his colleagues, people who have contributed in very positive ways in this debate—but in the end what we need is more courage from our politicians in this parliament. Cashed-up lobby groups can afford to patrol the corridors in this place. Problem gamblers cannot. We have to decide whose interests we are representing. I therefore commend the bill.