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Wednesday, 16 September 2015
Page: 6974

Senator STERLE (Western Australia) (13:25): When I was a kid growing up, 'chop chop' meant get your bum into gear and get moving—anyway, I have just learnt something new!

I rise today to speak on an issue that I believe would contribute immensely to the great State of Western Australia. The issue is I speak of is mixed martial arts, and more specifically about hosting an Ultimate Fighting Championship event in Perth. I have personally spoken with UFC executives and representatives—Mr Tom Wright, UFC Director for Canada, Australia and New Zealand; Mr Joe Carr, UFC Vice President of International; and Mr Peter Kloczko, UFC's Australian and New Zealand representative—all of whom have indicated that they would most definitely be interested in hosting    an event in Perth if they were allowed to. However, the Western Australian Barnett government has stood in the way of this, by introducing a ban in March 2013 prohibiting the use of a fenced enclosure in mixed martial art events.

This ridiculous decision was even contrary to advice given by the WA Combat Sports Commission, a government body that supports the use of a fenced enclosure and voiced concerns about the decision made by the government. The commission stated it 'supports the use of fenced enclosures for MMA contests but will abide by this decision'. This particular comment comes from the body that actually recommends and enforces the rules. So it appears that we have a case of professionals being dictated to by the politicians, who clearly do not have the best interests of the athletes and the sporting community foremost in their minds. This has made mixed martial arts far less safe in Western Australia. It was also stated widely in the media that there was no consultation within the combat sports community, who would have told the government how this move would put athletes' safety at risk.

What does this all mean? It is preventing the most professional mixed martial arts organisation in the world from hosting an event in Perth. The UFC will not risk the safety of their athletes if they cannot compete in the Octagon, which is fenced. This was personally conveyed to me by the UFC, who wanted to stress how important this safety measure is to the organisation. This is why I cannot understand the WA government's decision, because, firstly, it does not account for athlete safety and, secondly, it prevents the premier organisation bringing a professional event to Perth. That is why today this speech will mark the beginning of my UFC for Perth petition, in the hope of getting the UFC to the west. This ridiculous Barnett government decision needs to be overturned.

Let me talk about some of the issues which I have briefly raised so far. Because of the action of the Western Australian government, some people automatically presume that mixed martial arts is banned in Western Australia; this is not the case. Mixed martial arts events are sanctioned on the proviso that the event must be conducted in a boxing ring. This was the same as in Victoria, which this year changed their regulations to allow MMA events to be competed in a fenced enclosure. Victorian sports minister Mr John Eren pointed out that competing in a fenced enclosure is 'a move industry experts say will increase safety and reduce the likelihood of serious injury'.

Let me explain to you why a safety enclosure is important. In the sport, the full spectrum of martial arts is utilised. Many of those are Olympic sports such as boxing, wresting, taekwondo and judo. But it also encompasses other martial arts such as karate, Muay Thai and Brazilian jujitsu. If a fenced enclosure is not there when athletes go for a take-down, the athlete can go through the ropes potentially injuring themselves, officials and/or spectators. Yes, it is true that some MMA bouts in a boxing ring still occur, but these are with far smaller promotions. The larger and, I stress, the professional organisations conduct bouts in a fenced enclosure because they want to ensure the athletes' safety.

Having an organisation set a better standard in terms of safety and professionalism is not dissimilar to various industries in Australia, including industries I know a little about such as the transport industry. For example, if you have a reputable company that is the highest paid organisation and upholds the value of its employees by providing a safe working environment,    then it actually improves the whole industry, because employees want those standards in their organisations.

No wonder MMA athletes want to compete for the UFC. The benefit of this is that it will lift the standards throughout the industry. The UFC is a leader in the sport of MMA. The leadership of the UFC has been especially evident. When MMA was in its infancy it had limited rules and was looked at as an underground sport. The evolution led by the UFC has made MMA into a professional sport, now considered the fastest growing sport in the world. There are now unified rules of MMA that are globally agreed on. If leadership had not been taken by the UFC the sport would not be a professional one. That is why it is hard to understand why the WA Barnett government is allowing the sport to go backwards in WA.

To make a bad decision even worse, the state is forgoing the economic benefit of hosting the UFC in Perth. Sydney has hosted a UFC event four times. Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Adelaide have each hosted an event once, all with great success. In November this year the UFC will host its first event in Melbourne at Etihad stadium, expecting some 70,000 spectators. This will be one of the biggest UFC events in history. It will be headlined by the UFC's biggest drawcard, ESPN sportswoman of the year and UFC bantamweight titleholder Ronda Rousey. The co-event is another female title fight. Like Western Australia, Victoria had a ban on fenced enclosures, but it has since overturned that ban, as I said previously. The current sports minister of Victoria stated when changing the rules:

The new regulations will make the sport safer by introducing a 'safety enclosure', such as the octagon, giving the green light to UFC bouts in Victoria that will boost tourism and create jobs.

Those are things I like to hear: 'boost tourism and create jobs'. Why are those states smart enough to have a UFC event while Western Australia is still languishing behind? Is WA a state that no longer cares about tourism and job creation like the rest of the states? I quote a figure that came out recently:

… international tourism to Western Australia grew just 1.22% in the year ending June, 2015, compared to a national average of 11.8%.

In Adelaide the UFC itself pretty much booked out a hotel, but they also had many interstate and international visitors watching the fights live. I was advised that many Western Australians made the journey east to Adelaide, and I know that many more will go to Melbourne. Not only would people get to see a world-class event here in Perth but, to be frank, they would be getting a glimpse of the best state in the land.

I now want to address the issue that the WA government will want to push: that the sport promotes violence. I have stated previously that mixed martial arts is not banned in WA, just as boxing is not banned. Access for people to view MMA is not banned in WA. So why are they essentially banning the UFC? If it is about violence then why not ban boxing, MMA, karate, judo and whatever? Why in essence ban the organisation that sets the highest standard in the sport but allow smaller semi-professional or amateur organisations to conduct events? They have never addressed this.

The elite promotion that is the UFC has its own code of conduct, which has seen athletes terminated and/or suspended. The UFC are known for their commitment to being a mainstream professional sport, so when an incident occurs they take it very seriously. There are no exemptions, and champions have been stripped of their titles. The majority of the athletes on the UFC roster are full-time professional MMA athletes and are the highest paid in the sport. The UFC also has one of the strictest drug policies in sport. As discussed, the UFC was part of the negotiations that brought in a set of unified rules to mixed martial arts. This made the sport a more regulated one with many rules, in contrast to the image of it being a no-rules fight. Many of the rules recommended by the UFC are the same as the rules for modern mixed martial arts. This is the level of professionalism that has evolved mixed martial arts. I was fortunate enough to see how the operations worked in Adelaide. From my perspective I saw how professional the UFC are. The safety of the athletes was of upmost importance and they made no secret of it, because as the most professional organisation they want to set the standard.

It just seems archaic that the WA government has in effect excluded the UFC from going to Perth. In closing I reiterate that the Western Australian government's position is just plainly wrong and is ensuring that safety is no longer a priority in WA in mixed martial arts. This poor decision is essentially banning the UFC from hosting an event in Perth and forgoing the level of professionalism and economic benefit that they will bring to WA. This draconian, nanny state approach by the government is solely punishing the followers of the UFC.