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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

DOUST, Ms Kelilah, Consumer Voice, Gambling Impact Society (New South Wales)

HATCLIFFE, Mr Gary, Consumer Voice, Gambling Impact Society (New South Wales)

PHILLIPS, Mrs Roslyn Helen, National Research Officer, FamilyVoice Australia

ROBERTS, Ms Kate, Executive Officer, Gambling Impact Society (New South Wales)


Evidence from Mrs Phillips was taken via teleconference—

CHAIR: I welcome the representatives from Gambling Impact Society and FamilyVoice Australia. I understand information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. FamilyVoice Australia are appearing via teleconference. Mrs Phillips, it is Sue Boyce, the chair, here. Also here are Senator Carol Brown, from the Labor Party, and Senator Nick Xenophon, who is from the Xenophon party, aren't you, these days?

Senator XENOPHON: No, still Independent.

CHAIR: You are just an Independent?

Senator XENOPHON: The Clerk says I can call myself an Independent, Chair.

CHAIR: I now invite each of you to make a short opening statement and, at the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you. Mrs Phillips, we might start with you, if you have an opening statement.

Mrs Phillips : Certainly. Thank you for the opportunity to give evidence before you. I had not heard of the omnibus Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 until this morning. It seems to have slipped under the media radar. However, my quick skim of its 164 pages over the past few hours has indicated that several matters would be of concern to FamilyVoice Australia supporters as well as the wider community.

Current constraints mean I can comment on just three main issues—gambling regulation, the Charities Act delay and paid parental leave provisions. Firstly, on gambling regulation, gaming machines, commonly known as 'pokies', are the most addictive form of gambling, causing severe suffering to the addicts, their families and their employers. These harms cost the community billions of dollars each year—I have seen figures of around $5 billion. The reforms achieved under the previous government did not go nearly far enough in addressing these harms. Nevertheless, those reforms, including mandatory precommitment and limits on ATM withdrawals, were better than nothing.

The present government wants to have yet another inquiry on the issue. That is quite appropriate, but on past experience it may take two years to gather evidence, make recommendations and implement those recommendations. Such an inquiry is no reason at all to abolish or emasculate the reforms introduced just last year. I would remind the committee that pokies reform is still a very great concern in the community.

I notice that Nick Xenophon is present today. I am not sure whether the other senators understand that he stood for the South Australian legislative council in 1997 with just one policy: no pokies. He was an unknown lawyer but he gained nearly three per cent of the primary vote and more than a quota with preferences. He was the first Independent of any kind to win an upper house seat in 60 years. In the 2006 election, he gained over 20 per cent of the primary vote and when he reached—

CHAIR: Mrs Phillips, Senator Xenophon is trying to look embarrassed at this, but also you have less than 10 minutes.

Mrs Phillips : Yes, I realise that but I wanted to make the point. I am nearly at the end.

CHAIR: And we do want to ask you some questions.

Mrs Phillips : Indeed, but the point is he gained a quarter of the vote in the election a few months ago and although he has broadened his concerns, pokies remain a high priority and governments that ignore community concerns about pokie harms may find they lose rather than win votes. I oppose the passage of this bill that would abolish or amend past gambling reforms. Such amendments may be appropriate when the government has something better to put in their place, but not now.

I turn to the Charities Act delay. Registered charities rely on voluntary donations in order to provide important community support. I understand that there are a number of concerns about the provisions of the Charities Act, including the definition of what a charity is and what a charitable purpose is and the increase in red tape that may limit the services that charities can provide. I welcome the bill's amendment to delay the commencement of the Charities Act while further consultation takes place.

Lastly, there is paid parental leave. It is and has been a controversial issue. The current scheme is fundamentally unfair in that women who work hard caring for young children at home receive only the $1,000 baby bonus after the birth of their next baby, while women in the paid work force receive over $9,000. If the government and opposition believe in equal pay for equal work, why should paid nannies get $9,000 from the government while unpaid nannies caring for their own children receive just $1,000? It is not possible to right this huge wrong in the current bill, but insofar as the bill reduces red tape for businesses and recognises that the paid leave comes from taxpayers—in other words, the government—it is appropriate that the government's Department of Human Services should pay mothers directly. I support this part of the bill.

Ms Roberts : I will speak on behalf of the Gambling Impact Society (NSW) and then will give people an opportunity to add anything. Thank you for the opportunity to come along at very short notice; it is interesting to find myself here once again. Most 'responsible gambling' literature opens with the normalisation of gambling in Australia and then goes on to identify the difference between perceptions of 'recreational gamblers'—implied 'normal people'—who gamble in an unquantifiable 'responsible' manner and others who apparently fail to maintain personal control and recklessly damage both themselves and others close to them. To quote a section of a recent paper by Professor Linda Hancock:

With mounting evidence on the harms caused by gambling, many jurisdictions have responded by emphasising harm minimisation and responsible gambling; but frequently frame this in terms of individual responsibility (take control of your gambling); rather than industry/government/regulatory responsibility for prevention of avoidable harms.

The original concept of responsible gambling was, according to Professor Jan McMillen:

… the provision of gambling services in a way that seeks to minimise the harm to customers and the community associated with gambling.

However, the term 'responsible gambling', as used today, is stigmatising, leads to victimising and not only fails to support those affected but actively works against them reaching out for assistance. This has been most recently identified by the ANU, with Annie Carroll's recent Report into Gambling and Stigma. She says:

It puts all the onus on the person to gamble responsibly rather than admitting that gambling products, like alcohol and drugs, are innately risky products to use.

We are here to challenge that responsible gambling concept and place the 'irresponsible provision' of gambling services firmly back in its place as a case of regulatory failure. The ongoing depiction of ourselves—people affected by problem gambling, by both government and the gambling industry as irresponsible 'sick individuals' serves only to disguise the facts and protect the vested interests who ultimately benefit from our demise. The concept of a gambling sickness goes deep into the belly of the institution of community gambling in Australia, particularly poker machine gambling. This is an area where conflicted state/territory governments have consistently failed the population and failed to protect those most vulnerable to gambling harm.

We are here today to provide a voice on behalf of those five million Australians affected by problem gambling. These are people hidden by stigma, shame and stereotyping who are facing today yet another betrayal. We are here to tell you about our view on this sickness in an effort to stop what we see as the door to meaningful, national, social, structural and regulatory reform slamming in our face once again.

We are sick of being labelled as aberrant, irresponsible deviants by both governments and industries who ultimately gain from our so-called recklessness. We are sick of the term 'responsible gambling' when no-one can define the dose parameters, and hence it becomes a pejorative weapon to further disempower us. We are sick of having our concerns silenced by powerful lobby groups with vested interests, who seek to minimise our existence and discredit our right to be heard. We are sick of being used as political footballs between government parties and big business and the taxes they seek to protect. We are sick of supporting over a decade of research, prevalence studies and public inquiries which are ultimately ignored and thus fail to contribute to meaningful—

Proceedings suspended from 16:45 to 16:58

CHAIR: Ms Roberts, you tabled your statement, I understand.

Ms Roberts : I would like to table my statement and then just conclude with a few remarks.

CHAIR: That would be fine.

Ms Roberts : I do not want to miss the opportunity.

CHAIR: That would be excellent. Thank you.

Ms Roberts : In essence, we are appalled to be back here with so little time to be consulted and to discuss the implications of what is about to occur if we repeal these acts, which are the first time that a national government has stood up and taken some kind of responsibility for an issue that has for a long time been firmly placed with states and territories who, we believe are conflicted. More importantly, the repeal will place back on the shoulders of individuals the main burden of so-called responsible gambling—which, as we have already explained, is a term that is pejorative and not helping our issues in any way whatsoever. One of our concerns is that once again we seem to be swept under the carpet as a group of people who have been affected by problem gambling—both people who gamble with difficulties and the families around them, who, as we say, are about five million Australians.

Our main concern is that we have a product in the community that we believe is doing harm. We know—we have had research now for over 14 years that is indicating this—that there is a significant problem in the community specifically related to poker machines and that this is basically not a personal issue; this is a product safety issue involving dangerous consumption of a product that requires more stringent regulation than we have been able to acquire to date. Without basically looking at the technology we are facing a new wave of gambling products coming in. At the moment we know 85 per cent of people turning up with gambling problems are to do with poker machines.

CHAIR: Was that 85?

Ms Roberts : Eighty-five per cent. I also am a problem gambler counsellor. My role, having set up the Gambling Impact Society, was to try to create a voice for people who have been affected, particularly those in New South Wales where we have managed to export the problems to every other state and territory. I am also a problem gambling counsellor. I have been a professional social worker for 30 years and I am also a family member affected by problem gambling. In my experience working as a counsellor, talking with my advocacy hat on to numerous consumers across the country, there is a significant difficulty that arises with the technology. These laws sought to modestly approach that, as far as we are concerned.

CHAIR: Sorry, what was the 85 per cent?

Ms Roberts : People presenting with gambling problems. Eighty-five per cent of people coming in for counselling are coming in with poker machine addiction. The other issue that I have raised on numerous occasions is that this is usually managed through states and territories by the regulatory body for the industry—certainly in New South Wales where we have the largest number of poker machines. It means that that close association creates a conflict in developing effective policies and good governance. One of the issues with people affected by gambling addictions is that it has not been dealt with by our health departments. We are looking for national leadership in getting this onto the health outcomes where we can start developing some measured public health approaches to the issue. The Productivity Commission report over 1999 and 2010 recommended that approach and we are astonished to think that the repeal of these acts would basically put us back 15 years.

CHAIR: Either Mr Hatcliffe or Ms Doust, do you have a comment?

Ms Doust : Appearing as someone who has been affected by gambling problems with a family member, I suffered as a child from neglect and financial loss. My family almost lost our home. I am ashamed to be sitting here today in the face of regulations being repealed. Australian families have been fighting a silent battle and will continue to do so without this legislation. If any of these government bodies or clubs actually cared about the issue they would find a way. Instead, they find excuses.

Mr Hatcliffe : I have been a problem gambler, specifically with the pokies, for 25 years. I have been gamble-free for two years. Primarily, it started as a fun thing but I was caught up with the machines. It slowly built into a life-changing loss of 25 years of my life because of what was involved in maintaining my addiction to the pokies. Technology-wise, I know in the beginning I was drawn to the noise, the lights, the false winnings. For example, even if I placed a $5 bet and I won only $2.50 back there would still be all sorts of wonderful congratulations from the machine telling me that I had been a winner. With the ATMs as well, I was one of those people who used my limit of $1,000 in one day but then I would wait potentially only a few minutes after midnight, or I would learn when the banks changed over the 24-hour period, and I would take out another $1,000. So there was a problem there. I have had 25 years of pokie addiction and, as to technology—and say we stopped using technology to safeguard—if we had used it back then, there may be a high chance that I could have halted my spiral.

Senator CAROL BROWN: I will only ask one question because I know others want to talk about the gambling part of this bill. Mrs Phillips, do you support the Australian charities legislation?

Mrs Phillips : I understand that charities have serious concerns about it and, therefore, I do support the amendment in the bill because I believe there is a need for further consultation.

Senator CAROL BROWN: Can you tell me whether FamilyVoice Australia supports the legislation?

Mrs Phillips : No, we have had concerns about it and we were glad that the new government has said that it will look at it further.

CHAIR: What you have basically told us in that regard is that you support the idea of delaying the introduction—is that right?

Mrs Phillips : Yes, that is right.

Senator DI NATALE: Ms Doust or Mr Hatcliffe, I am interested in hearing a little more about your experience—and thank you for your testimony, by the way; it takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of a committee like this, particularly when you have been so directly affected. Mr Hatcliffe, I think you said that you would regularly breach the ATM limit of $1,000 in a night—is that right?

Mr Hatcliffe : I regularly breached it, primarily to do with access at the venues. Some venues have 24 hour access. So in one day—for instance, a Saturday—I would use $1,000, and then early on Sunday morning I would have access again to another $1,000 for the following day.

Senator DI NATALE: Would you take the money out from the ATM at the venue?

Mr Hatcliffe : Absolutely.

Senator DI NATALE: If the limit had been $250 and you had had to go outside and get in the car and go to the bank around the corner—so if you had had to just get out of what problem gamblers often describe as 'being in the zone' and remove yourself from the environment, because you did not have access to the money—do you think that would have made any difference?

Mr Hatcliffe : That would have made a monstrous difference. Just to have, as you say, taken myself out of being in front of that machine and had to actually physically walk outside—and to maybe get some fresh air and rethink bills that I needed to pay—would have made a huge difference.

Just one more thing: at most of the clubs where I accessed ATMs—and I experienced this with my winnings, too—what was given to me out of the machines and by the club as my winnings were primarily $20 bills, because the machines only took $20 bills. So if I had been given 50s or 100s out of the ATMs, or had been given those for my winnings, then I may have again paused and thought about putting the money into the machines.

Senator DI NATALE: Could you just explain that? So the ATMs only dispense 20s, which is what the machines take?

Mr Hatcliffe : Correct.

Senator DI NATALE: I am not aware of this—are you saying there is actually a direct link there? Is that coincidence?

Mr Hatcliffe : For me there is.

Senator DI NATALE: Do we know if that is actually intentional? I suspect it is and this is probably a very naive question.

Mr Hatcliffe : I suspect it is, yes.

Ms Roberts : People have also raised that, if you have a win, it is often paid in small denominations such as $20 notes, and change is often given in that way as well. These are, I guess, what we would consider to be lapses in duty of care, and of course there are no guidelines for it.

Mr Hatcliffe : The excuse that was given to me each time when I had winnings was, 'We don't have the change.' I saw this time and time again over a long period of time: 'We don't have the larger denominations.' So I would get $300 or $400 in $20 bills and, being a compulsive gambler who was already sitting there, bang, I was into it.

Senator DI NATALE: What about the capacity to set a limit and know that it is going be networked with machines right around the state? Do you think you would have used that or do you think you would have said, 'Look, I'm interested in winning as much as I can and I'm not going to bother with this precommitment nonsense'?

Mr Hatcliffe : For the last 10 years of my gambling, I knew I had a problem. I started going into clubs with a certain amount in my wallet that I could afford to lose, and the rest I would leave at home. So, if I had had the option of precommitment and if I had gone into a club and only had $300, I would have pressed in $300. That would have stopped me from going over that $300. But, of course, once I reached that $300 and had no money on me I would drive all the way home, get my credit card that I had left at home and then go and access those ATMs. Obviously it would be different if there were a legislated duty of care by the manufacturers. As an addict, I needed it to be taken out of my hands. My control or access to the machines needed to be taken out of my hands.

Senator DI NATALE: Ms Doust, I just want to know how you feel as somebody who has been affected by this. We spent three years doing what we could to try and get reform in this area and, to be frank, most of us who were working very hard to get reform were disappointed with the outcome. It was very modest. I think it is fair to say what we got was modest, but at least it was something; it was the first time the federal government did something. How do you feel about those of us here now that it looks like the government and the opposition might vote to basically undo everything that we did in the last parliament?

Ms Doust : I honestly feel betrayed by the government, as do my family and several people that I know who have also been affected by this issue. It is disgraceful that the first meaningful steps towards reform that our government has taken will now be removed to be replaced with nothing. You will be giving vulnerable people back over to the wolves, and there is nothing to prevent them being taken advantage of. I am absolutely disgusted.

CHAIR: Ms Doust, were you aware that this change to the precommitment and the poker machines and the ATMs was part of the now government's policy that they took to the election campaign?

Ms Doust : No, I was not. I did not find out about any of these proposed changes until Friday afternoon.

Senator DI NATALE: I have one more question. Ms Roberts, the minister responsible for this legislation says that actually this is a state responsibility and really should not be dealt with by the federal government; it should be dealt with by state governments. What is your response to that?

Ms Roberts : State governments are totally compromised. For instance, in New South Wales it is the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing that manages all the implications around regulation. Their relationship is primarily with the industry. They manage the counselling services and have no cultural background in dealing with that; they had no organisational responsibilities prior to using the Responsible Gambling Fund. There is an absolute and clear mandate for the federal government to be involved in this issue. As I have already stated, it is a health issue. It needs to be treated as a health issue and we need to develop a very strong public health framework. This has been recommended through the 1999 and 2010 inquiries. That is a federal government responsibility. The conflicts of interest are rampant at state and territory level and this means that we are now being thrown back, as Kelilah has said, to the wolves. We had a glimmer of hope and worked very hard alongside government to achieve some meaningful reform. As you have said, they were modest achievements and got watered down. We believe they need to be strengthened and there needs to be a lot more strength in consumer protection and duty of care. But technological change is required. States are so aligned with industry there is no way they are going to bite that bullet, so it would be an absolute catastrophe to see these laws repealed. We need to have our national regulator. David Marshall from ANU in 2006 made this very clear through his research, and here we are in 2013 turning back the small changes we have taken.

Senator XENOPHON: I raise a procedural matter. Ms Roberts wanted her opening statement to be tabled as she could not read it out. I move that it be tabled.

CHAIR: Okay. I thank witnesses very much for coming.