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Community Affairs Legislation Committee

COSTELLO, Reverend Tim, Chair, Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce

ALLEY, Major Kelvin, Salvation Army


CHAIR: I welcome Reverend Tim Costello from the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce and Major Kelvin Alley from the Salvation Army. I understand information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Is that correct?

Rev. Costello : Yes.

CHAIR: I invite you to make a short opening statement. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Major Alley : I am a member of the Australian Churches Taskforce and also today represent the Salvation Army. I am very surprised to be here. I have come at relatively short notice. I have a few points to share and then will pass to Tim. I have worked for the last couple of years tirelessly with the previous government, so it surprises me that the work done to introduce national legislation to reform the area of problem gambling on poker machines is about to be repealed. We were delighted, despite the watered down legislation, to achieve the milestones achieved last year. The Salvation Army, along with the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, worked very hard with the previous government to achieve what was achieved.

We felt progress was significant in terms of having national regulation of poker machines especially and controls over the use of what are deemed to be dangerous and harmful consumer products. Whilst I am not surprised by the coalition's bill to repeal most of the legislation—I have been aware of coalition's position on this and the Salvation Army has made representations to the coalition task force in trying to get them to understand our perspective—I am very surprised by the now opposition, whom we supported to achieve a significant milestone, has effectively rolled over.

We feel strongly there has to be a national regulator. The provisions in this bill repeal the national regulator. Leaving it to states and clubs, who are both beneficiaries of poker machines, is asking recipients to turn off their own sources of income, 40 per cent of which is from people who suffer and battle with gambling addiction. We just feel that is too much of a contradiction to work.

The national regulator is the conscience of the nation, and ensures that those who prey on the losses of the addicted and others are required to act reasonably and according to some kind of common principle. The national regulator is essential; pokies are most highly concentrated in the most vulnerable communities. You tell me the suburbs where unemployment is the highest, where the highest concentrations of government-dependent incomes are and where school achievements are the lowest—where society's most vulnerable live—then I will tell you where the intentional concentration of poker machines are targeted the most.

The other point about ATMs: the Salvation Army is very supportive of limits placed on ATMs in gambling venues. Our counsellors, and I have had conversations today, would say that the more difficult we make it to get access to family funds then the more difficult it is for the addicted gambler to gamble. Addicted gamblers always chase losses. The industry knows this, which is why these limits are being repealed. It all adds to the profits of venues where one person's losses are another person's profits to be maximised.

I would like to draw attention to the submission by the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce on the very point that was being discussed here before. We make the point on page 4 that gamblers can have access to funds either by EFTPOS or by ATM withdrawal. To get EFTPOS does require a transaction with a staff member, which does at least have some sort of cushioning effect. But the venue gets a cut of the fees charged on ATM transactions and so I guess from our perspective, now we see the limits raised and that more money will be going out through those ATMs to problem gamblers with, of course, more profits rolled to the venues that are supporting the lifting of limits on ATMs.

Just to close: I appeal to members and senators of this great house—this house for all Australians—that Christmas should be about good news. Let this go through and it is bad news; 33 per cent of players are in danger of harm from these machines—33 per cent of players. If this were a vehicle there would be a national regulation to control the sort of damage caused by any consumer product that would be harmful to 33 per cent of its users. Forty per cent of income—and I hesitate to use the word 'income'; it is actually people's losses—comes from the vulnerable. Take more time, I appeal to you, to think this through. Please.

CHAIR: Reverend Costello?

Major Alley : Thank you, Kelvin. I share Kelvin's emotion. I think this is a very sad day. I think in 1999 when my brother had the courage to introduce a Productivity Commission report, that was unmistakable and shocking in its impact—so shocking that the then Prime Minister, John Howard, said, 'I am ashamed'. Australia has 20.4 per cent of all the world's pokies. Every single visiting delegation talks about the Australian gambling disaster. The public all know about the Australian gambling disaster. Most recently it has been sports betting, and I am thankful there have been some moves there. But sports betting is coming off a very small base—it is a worry. The great damage that Kelvin has been expressing is actually with pokies. That is where the damage is done.

Ten years on from John Howard saying, 'I am ashamed', nothing had happened. The states were allowed to continue to have their jurisdiction, and states with jurisdiction over pokies is Dracula in charge of the blood bank. Twelve per cent of state revenue in Victoria comes from pokies, so them regulating for the protection—which is what a state government, or government at any level exists for—of those who are most vulnerable has absolutely failed. This is why I talked to then opposition leader Kevin Rudd to reinstitute the Productivity Commission, which he did. It is the second Productivity Commission now, equally bipartisan and with the same devastating evidence: this is profoundly out of control.

The earlier Productivity Commission inquiry had found that Australia has 20.4 per cent of all the world's pokies in 1999, prompting John Howard's outburst about being ashamed. The Productivity Commission has now found that 40 per cent—up to 60 per cent; 40 per cent is the conservative figure—of money going through pokies comes from addicted people, from problem gamblers. So the moves that occurred in the last government at least said there is some action, we are hearing your cries. The Sydney Morning Herald in October last year reported that 81 per cent of people wanted pokies reform, and we want to be able to say we actually are hearing. This is why today is such a tragic day. It is a tragic day. In Victoria just two months ago we finally got the coroner's inquest figures, which had been closed down and stopped. They showed that there are 130 suicides from pokies alone in the last decade. We cannot get the figures elsewhere. We have also known about marriage breakdown and the kids going hungry and the bankruptcies and the courts being clogged with crime, but there were 130 suicides. That was a conservative figure, because it had to be just pokies—it could not be pokies and alcohol or pokies and depression or pokies and anything else. Obviously sometimes these things are entwined.

This is very sad. It is a failure, as Kelvin has put it, and it is now potentially a failure of both sides. Churches, along with other agencies such as Kate's, are the ones running the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. This was a very modest attempt to build a fence at the top of the cliff—that is all it was. It looks like that fence is about to be pulled down. I can only endorse the plea that Kelvin has made, to think again.

Senator XENOPHON: Is your basic proposition that you cannot rely on state governments for regulation?

Rev. Costello : Yes, that is the view of both of us. I hear the argument of Kevin Andrews about subsidiarity, push it back to where the impact is most. Where the impact is most is on local government. Local government has tried, unsuccessfully, to have a pokies tax on top of rates to deal with the damage, and that has been repealed by state governments at least in Victoria. That is where subsidiarity—that notion of pushing it back to the lowest area that is most affected, would apply. Pushing it to the states, who are hopelessly captured by this revenue, has proved to be a failure. That is clear from two Productivity Commission reports.

Major Alley : We have the paradox of those receiving the most revenue from this being the ones we are asking to reduce the revenue by helping people control their gambling habits. It is not going to work—it never has worked.

Senator DI NATALE: I could ask you a lot of the questions I have already asked you over the years, and I suspect I know the answers I would get. Like both of you I have been wrestling with this, and I have not yet been here long enough to cease being shocked by some of the things that occur in this place. Perhaps that is a reflection of my own naivety. Can I ask something that is a little out of left field. You are here as the interchurch gambling task force—you represent some of the major Christian faiths. The minister responsible for this has been has been publicly associated with the Christian faith—he has been public about that. In your view, is what the minister proposes to do here consistent with what it means to be a good Christian?

Rev. Costello : Without ever being one to judge anyone's faith—I will not go there—Cardinal Pell and Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne, who sit on the task force, have made public media comments with us on this. The Catholic Church is unequivocally committed to these reforms. The minister is a Catholic, so you then have to work out what is going on.

I think that when all the Christian churches are united in this—and I might say that if we included the Muslim community or any other community it would be exactly the same; one thing that Christians, whatever their hostility at times towards Muslims, certainly get is that Muslims are concerned about family breakdown and divorce and pornography, and gambling—exactly the same issue. So people of faith are saying: 'We are not prohibitionist. People have a right to gamble.'

I find the minister's statements very puzzling, because he has written a very fine book about family and relationships, which I have read. We know the pokies have a major impact on marriages—on family breakdown. So I just do not understand that. I will not go to questioning what that means in terms of what a good Christian is, but I certainly would say this: there is no-one in the churches who actually understands this; we can only understand this in terms of the political power of the pokies lobby in the industry. That is the only way we can understand this.

Major Alley : For the record, I would like to say: I have the utmost respect for the minister, as I still have for the previous minister, so it is not for me to reflect upon a person's faith and how that translates into action. The story, though, that I did present to the coalition task force was the story of—

Senator DI NATALE: Can you explain the task force? This is the coalition?

Major Alley : Yes. You might not be aware of it.

CHAIR: This is based on the fact that the coalition took the policy in this bill to the last election.

Major Alley : That is correct. This bill reflects accurately the policy that went to the election. I told the story of the good Samaritan. It is sometimes the political ideology that we do not interfere in the lives of individual people so much, but I said: if Jesus were to tell the story again, I think he would incorporate some provision whereby the road was made safe. In that story, the life of every traveller was at risk if they travelled that road, and I think it reflects well upon a government—in this case, both sides of the House—for it to make this road safe. That does come up against particular political ideologies; I do understand that. I understand about getting rid of unnecessary regulations. I understand about giving as much power and responsibility back to the states as possible. But I think this is a case where a road has to be made safe. These are consumer products that are intended to do harm, and I think we need to recognise that at a national level.

Rev. Costello : I might just add that I do not understand how the nanny state argument—'Let people be adults'—sits with the coalition's great reforms. A Liberal Premier, Sir Henry Bolte, was the first in the world to introduce seatbelts, which saved lives. A Liberal Premier, Jeff Kennett—and I had my stoushes with Jeff Kennett, but on this one I totally agreed with him—was the first to introduce compulsory fences around swimming pools: if you like, a nanny state interfering in the family home. Where a nanny state is actually restraining harm—and this is massive harm—I think it fits with Liberal philosophy. I just do not understand it here at all—other than what I have speculated on, in terms of capture from the industry.

Senator DI NATALE: How did you learn about the coalition's policy on this issue?

Rev. Costello : I learned about it when I was in St Petersburg at the G20, I think—or it might have been on the way from Rwanda, where I had been before. I saw that it was with Anthony Ball of Clubs and was announced on their website and in what appeared to be a joint press conference; that is how Richard Willingham of the Age reported it. I was horrified.

Major Alley : I make it my business to track with the policies of both sides—or the three major parties—in particular. In order to make our submissions to the then opposition coalition, who were developing their policy, which started with the draft, I was familiar with the draft and so we addressed aspects of that draft when we presented to the six in that task force.

Of course, going into the election I made it my business too to grapple with the various policies of the various parties. So the policy was no surprise to me. I guess what did catch me was just the swiftness of the legislation coming into the House, particularly under a title that really hid away the importance and relevance of these particular provisions. And—

CHAIR: You are aware that some of these things are time sensitive and—

Major Alley : Absolutely.

CHAIR: if the legislation does not happen—

Major Alley : No, I understand that. I rang the minister's office, and he knows this. I spoke to the chief of staff, actually, because I was just taken by surprise that it had actually been tabled and there was no media, know nothing—not a breath, not a word. That is why we thought that someone has to be serious about this because this is something that we do not want to happen.

I guess, to be fair, it was both sides of the House—there was no opposing vote and it went through. So folk like me are just surprised that those who we fought very hard alongside in the last few years to get the legislation to where it got—even I was ringing coalition members on that day when it passed by one vote because of the stalling of the voting. We had done our bit to get this over the line, it is just very surprising that it has come to this, to nothing. In fact, it will go backwards.

Senator DI NATALE: Given that it was one of the issues that defined the 43rd Parliament—and it was a significant reform in the end, we got through—to be sort of buried amongst a range of other measures, what did you think of that?

Major Alley : I have just addressed that: I was really quite surprised that something of such significance to a lot of Australians and a lot of campaigners was packaged as part of a composite bill and tucked away. Because of that it kind of went in under the radar and so it was actually in the House before we had a chance to talk to the people. Again, I want to reiterate here that I have great respect for the folk I deal with—the minister and the shadows. We only deal at a level of respect, but we do not want this to go through.

CHAIR: So you became aware of this about two weeks ago?

Major Alley : Yes, just within the last two weeks—that is right.

CHAIR: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming this afternoon.

Rev. Costello : Thank you.

Major Alley : Thank you very much.