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Tuesday, 6 December 1983
Page: 3299

Senator GIETZELT (Minister for Veterans' Affairs)(4.30) —The Senate is considering the attempt by Senator Reid by way of motion to disallow the Casino Control Ordinance 1983. The Ordinance was gazetted on Monday, 31 October, after a decision by the Government on how best to proceed with the development of a complex involving an international hotel and a convention centre, including substantial office space. Therefore, I would urge honourable senators not to lose sight of that fact in considering this motion today. The proposed casino would be part of a much needed complex in Canberra. The importance of the complex must, therefore, not be understated. The Government sees it as an important event for Canberra and an important event for Australia.

From the outset, let me remind honourable senators of the benefit which will accrue from this development. I do not think we should lose sight of the fact that the project will provide construction activity and employment which are important for the financial and economic prosperity of Canberra. It will meet an urgent need for office accommodation in a city which is starved of adequate office space. I understand that the position regarding office space has deteriorated very considerably since March of this year when this proposal was before the previous Government for consideration. The complex will fulfil a long neglected requirement that a nation's capital must have a national convention centre which can accommodate international standard gatherings. I think it would be fair to say that no other national capital is denied those important facilities. The construction of this complex will mean that Canberra will be part of the convention circuit in our region; it will mean an end to convention revenue going out of Australia to South East Asian capitals. One has only to pick up journals that deal with business activity to realise that it has become part of the established processes for business conventions to be held outside this country in other capitals and for money associated with the conventions to be spent in South East Asia and the Pacific region. Therefore, the Government perceives this development, and correctly so, as a means of increasing tourism for Canberra and the region. This very important objective will be a step on the road to providing the Australian Capital Territory with a diversified economic base; it will be another boost to employment in the Capital Territory at a time when the Government-I believe correctly-and the community see the creation of jobs as the top priority for both government and the community. Therefore, I ask honourable senators to dwell upon these benefits. Honourable senators should ask themselves also whether they are willing to say today that Canberra should not have these benefits, particularly in the economic climate that faces this country. These are the benefits as the Government sees them.

Let me explain how we came to the position which has resulted in the motion to disallow the Ordinance. The previous Government and its members are no stangers to this matter. The development of an international hotel, convention centre and office complex has been raised and considered over many years. At some times the proposal has included a casino; other times it has not. Therefore, the question of a casino for Canberra is not something that suddenly appeared on the scene when the Labor Government was elected to office. It has been around for a long time. At times it was considered favourably by the previous Government and at other times not. Therefore, when the present Government came to office in March this year the proposal for a complex was part of the unfinished business of the previous Government. It was part of the business for this Government.

The Minister in the previous Government responsible for the Australian Capital Territory took a course of action unheard of in Australian political history. After the writs had been issued for the 5 March election, he made a commitment to White Industries Ltd for the development of the complex. This proposal included substantial concessions on the part of the Commonwealth. In other words , after the writs had been issued, the previous Minister committed the future Government to the financial implications of this project. Let me say, in passing , that such a situation will never occur under this Government. We will honour the longstanding tradition that, once writs for an election are issued, no decision involving revenue or expenditure decisions will be made. We repudiate that sort of commitment that was undertaken by a government in circumstances in which a change of government was certainly feasible and possible. This was the situation that the Labor Government faced when it came to office.

The first move that the Labor Government took was to establish its legal position. We had to establish whether we were bound by the commitment entered into by the former Government with White Industries. We accept the advice that, at the very least, we had a moral obligation to compensate White Industries for expenses incurred after the time when that organisation was accepted as the successful tenderer. The Government, therefore, had to balance the need to the facility, the existing commitment to White Industries, the concessions offered by the Government and the marginal economic viability of the complex itself. The course that was decided by the Government after careful consideration was to include a casino in the complex. This decision was in accordance with the recommendations of the House of Assembly made in 1981. I remind Australian Democrat senators that this recommendation was made by the House of Assembly at that time. This course of action meant that the complex would gain economic viability and could proceed without the substantial concessions on the part of the Commonwealth which were entered into by the Liberal-National Party Government.

As to the timing of this proposal and how it should be implemented, the Government had to consider a further range of matters. It had to determine, for example, the number of false starts on the casino issue made by the previous Government. I would remind Senator Reid of the number of times the previous Government had a different attitude from the one the Opposition is now taking. We had to consider the uncertainty that existed in the mind of the developers. Therefore, we decided that, before we called for submissions on the development, legislation should be in place. With the parliamentary year drawing to a close and with the need for the complex to get under way as quickly as possible, the Government introduced this ordinance so that the matter could be expedited. The Ordinance was drawn up so that the House of Assembly could consider the proposal . This procedure is also in accordance with the statement of the Minister for Territories and Local Government (Mr Uren) that matters of local concern should involve the House of Assembly. Therefore, this is not a matter, as has been suggested, in respect of which the Government was moving in the dark. Our intentions and our proposals were well known.

I remind honourable senators that Tasmania has two casinos in operation. The Northern Territory also has two casinos. There is a proposal for a casino on the Gold Coast in Queensland. When I was in Townsville a couple of months ago in connection with the opening of a counselling service for Vietnam veterans, people were talking about the casino for Townsville which was on the agenda of the Queensland Government. I think it is interesting that the three States that have conservative governments-the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Queensland- all have or are about to have casinos. There is no suggestion that there was something improper or morally wrong with those proposals. South Australia has passed casino legislation and is examining development proposals. Western Australia is also looking closely at having a casino. So it would appear that casinos have arrived; they are here, whether we want them or not. That surely answers those who believe that somehow or other casinos create moral decay and other sorts of problems in the communities in which they exist. Therefore, I think we are entitled to ask those honourable senators who come from the various States of the Commonwealth which either have casinos in operation or which will have casinos in operation why they should be taking a predetermined position in respect of the establishment of a casino in the national capital.

When the Government proceeded to draw up the Ordinance, it reviewed existing legislation in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Queensland and South Australia. We also reviewed the reports of various royal commissions and other boards of inquiry which had been established in the States to consider the question of casinos. It is interesting that in my State of New South Wales we do not have any current proposals for the establishment of a casino. I am not aware of any anyway. However, as I have said with respect to the inquiry that the Government commissioned and the evidence in the States which have taken initiatives in this respect, it is these factors which have enabled us to put before the Senate an Ordinance for the establishment of the casino, which provides the most comprehensive measures of controls existing in Australia. We have learnt from the States. We have learnt from the commission of inquiry of the House of Assembly. We believe therefore that, in spite of all the fears, concerns and innuendoes, the controls which the Government has put into place would overcome those fears. We believe therefore that it is a model of casino control legislation in Australia which the Government has put before the Parliament.

The Ordinance provides for very tight control over all facets of the operation of the casino. The developer, the operator and all employees of the casino will require approval. Their bona fides will be thoroughly checked by both the Casino Control Board, which is to be set up under the Department of Territories and Local Government, and by the Australian Federal Police. Once the developer's reputation is established, the developer and all of the parties associated with the control and ownership of the casino must satisfy the Foreign Investment Review Board guidelines. The Minister has been given full control over the layout and design of the proposed casino. In particular, the casino's operations are envisaged as being discreet and tasteful. It will be separated from the other facilities of the complex so that persons will neither be induced, encouraged nor enticed to enter the casino because of the layout or some other aspect of the complex. In other words, strict controls will be imposed over such matters as liquor, the entry of persons and associated entertainment facilities.

In accordance with the 1981 recommendations of the House of Assembly, poker machines will be strictly prohibited from being part of the casino complex. This is done very specifically to ensure that the continued viability and growth of the club industry in the Australian Capital Territory will not be jeopardised. So the Government has a balanced approach to this matter. It has taken into account community views and the experiences of all of the States which have adopted casinos or are adopting casino projects. The Minister will have the power to regulate strictly a wide variety of matters, including the hours of operation of the casino, the games to be played and the rules of those games, the betting procedures, the amount of credit which can be provided and the handling and the accountability of moneys. In other words, the Government is being quite responsible and mature in the way it is handling this project. Inspectors appointed under the Ordinance will be on duty whenever the casino is operating and with members of the Australian Federal Police they will have very wide-ranging draw enforcement powers. Very severe penalties are provided under the Ordinance for the breach of any of its provisions, including substantial fines; licence suspension; and if the offence is of a very grave nature, the cancellation of that licence. Those are the safeguards which the Government has provided in this proposal.

The Government is aware of allegations linking the operation of a casino with organised crime and with a number of social problems including prostitution and the tainting of the image of an area. No one in his right mind would suggest that any government, whatever its political complexion, would disregard that situation. Obviously any government would take every step, and we have taken every step, to see that those sorts of problems are avoided like the plague. I say to honourable senators that the legislation before us today will inhibit these very undesirable social activities. The provisions in the Ordinance are in line with the recommendations of the 1981 inquiry of the House of Assembly and of a more recent inquiry of a select committee of the House of Assembly carried out in 1983. The most recent House of Assembly inquiry, during which members of that House, the elected representatives, travelled to Tasmania and spoke to both the Tasmanian police and Tasmanian Government officials, found that the involement of criminal elements and the social problems which have been exaggerated and highlighted have not been aggravated during the many years in which the Tasmanian casino has been operating. I have been in the complex in Tasmania. I have not been to the casino, but I have not seen any of those features which have been highlighted in public debate on this project.

Bearing in mind that the legislative controls we have in our Ordinance are even stricter, the penalties greater and the scrutiny more exhaustive, the Government is confidient that these sorts of problems will not occur in the national capital. We would be foolish, of course, if we were to allow them to occur. The Government is vigilant. The Government is aware that these features can exist in some circumstances, but it has taken every conceivable measure to see that that does not happen. Therefore I draw the attention of honourable senators to that part of the Ordinance which enables the Minister to control all forms of advertising associated with the casino's operations. It is the Government's intention that approval be given only to advertising which will project an image of Canberra which benefits its status as the national capital, and the nation's capital.

It should not be thought that what is proposed will result in a mecca of flashing lights and crass vulgarity in the national capital. It was never the intention of the Government to have a miniature Kings Cross as a result of this project. Even if we were to have one, it would probably enliven the night life of what people sometimes describe as a rather dull sort of place. It would not be a Las Vegas-style development; rather the casino would be a room or perhaps even half of a floor in a building. There will be no external indication that a casino is located within. Honourable senators would also be aware that revenue generated by the operation of the casino, by a decision made by the Government, has been specifically earmarked to provide projects of social benefit to the residents of the Capital Territory. This is different from what happens in many of the States, where gambling revenue, which is now a very considerable proportion of those States' budgets, is treated as general revenue. Here in Canberra the Government's approach has been that the revenue would be available for social benefit and for the benefit of the residents of Canberra in a very specific way.

A special trust account will be established under this Ordinance into which such revenue will be paid. This will ensure that the revenue flowing through the casino will be held for the citizens of Canberra rather than be put into Consolidated Revenue, which is the practice in other places. The revenue will be paid into a separate trust account established under the Audit Act. This account will be known as the Australian Capital Territory Social Benefits Trust Fund. The Fund will be used to provide financial and other assistance to disadvantaged persons in the Australian Capital Territory, and there are plenty of them. It will assist elderly and other disadvantaged residents who require housing or rental assistance. All who depend on community facilities and services will thus benefit greatly by the project. Those who have suffered in disasters will be specifically helped. Honourable senators should understand that the purpose of the Casino Control Ordinance is to permit the Government to consider submissions from developers for a whole convention centre complex. This could be done without the substantial financial considerations that would otherwise have been necessary.

The development of the proposed complex would provide both immediate and long term developments for the Australian Capital Territory community as well as the Australian community. In the short term, during the construction phase, substantial number of jobs will be generated. It is estimated, for example, that building the whole complex will involve an expenditure of about $130m and create some 1,500 jobs during the construction phase; that in the longer term hundreds of additional permanent jobs will be created. They will be provided in the complex itself and in related catering and service industries. That is a very important objective because we know that the narrow economic base in Canberra does have disadvantages for many of the residents of the national capital. At present Australia does not have a substantial convention centre of the size contemplated by this project. In terms of the convention market the Government believes that a convention centre such as is proposed will mean that Australians will no longer be required to travel out of the country because of a lack of facilities here. That can only benefit all sectors of the Australian community. Also, to date Canberra has been sorely lacking in suitable venues for entertainment. The Government also recognises that, around the world, convention centres, in and of themselves, are not economically viable. Other governments, as we know from the empirical evidence, have had to offer a range of concessions to ensure that such important facilities are provided. If we are to have private investment in this type of project there must naturally be the prospect of an economic return; otherwise the funds will not be provided. The inclusion of the casino as a part of the complex will enable the development to take place without the need for a substantial government subsidy.

Honourable senators will be aware that when the House of Assembly considered the proposed amendment last week it recommended to the Minister for Territories and Local Government that the proposal that was rejected by the previous Government should stand-without a casino as part of the complex. The House of Assembly was almost evenly divided on the question. The vote on the proposal was as close as it could be-10 votes to eight. The decision taken was contrary to the two decisions taken on previous occasions when the House of Assembly has discussed the matter. In 1979 and in 1981 the House of Assembly supported, by a substantial majority, a casino proposal. So it must be borne in mind that the Assembly, in making its decision would not have been responsible for providing the concessions. That would be a Commonwealth contribution. The Assembly was not faced with a hard-nosed financial decision, but rather with advice based upon this Government bearing and wearing the consequences. Indeed, the report of the House of Assembly Select Committee which inquired into the casino proposal could not readily come up with any substantial or valid reason for opposing it. Notwithstanding its wide-ranging inquiry, it could find no evidence which would support a recommendation against the proposal on rational grounds.

Let me turn briefly to one of the matters raised by Senator Chipp. He said that because of a number of factors, including the closeness of the Assembly vote, we should hold a referendum on the issue; that such a referendum should be held on 25 February next, when the Government is to take five constitutional proposals to the Australian people. I wish to make clear the Government's position on this matter. It is the same as was put to Senator Chipp by the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) in his letter last month. The Prime Minister said that he thought it would be inappropriate to have a referendum on this matter. The Government wishes on 25 February to gain the support of the people of Australia on five important constitutional proposals, proposals which have been debated in the Senate and supported. Therefore, it would be an inappropriate time to have the people of Canberra distracted from these very important matters by having to consider a local issue. As the Prime Minister said in his letter, governments are elected to govern and referendums should be held only on matters of great importance or in cases where it was necessary because of constitutional obligations. That is the position that the Government has taken. We do not feel that it is appropriate further to delay the proposition by waiting until February in order to conduct a referendum. The need for office space in Canberra is far too urgent an issue to permit waiting on the outcome of a local vote. The Government has brought forth a development package designed to ease that accommodation shortage quickly. Senator Reid herself is aware of the difficulties that my Department has had in finding suitable accommodation. Many government departments and areas of the private sector are greatly concerned about the lack of such accommodation in Canberra. The Government considered the referendum question when it first looked at the matters which led to today's debate. It then rejected that option and it still rejects it. I ask honourable senators, therefore, to consider the provisions of the Ordinance, first, as a set of controls for a discreet casino in the Australian Capital Territory; secondly, as allowing for the development of a total complex which will benefit the community; thirdly, as lessening the drain on Commonwealth revenue; and, fourthly, as providing a much needed boost to Canberra's economy.

Let us look at the Ordinance on its merits. It provides the tightest possible control and sets a standard for the rest of the nation in this field. I therefore ask honourable senators not to make a cheap political decision today but rather to look at the Ordinance as a positive action, one taken in good faith and with the best of intentions. Honourable senators should remind themselves of the context in which the Government took this decision. It is not a simple matter. It is not just a matter of building a casino, allegedly to spoil the Canberra scene. It is providing for the nation's capital a much needed complex and I urge all honourable senators, particularly those from States where casinos are operating, or will be operating as a result of State Government interest in the matter, to reject Senator Reid's motion and the cynical politics that I believe it represents.