PARLIAMENT HOUSE, Canberra: I rise to also speak on the National Gambling Reform Bill 2012 and the two other bills before us. I say at the outset that I am not a huge fan of pokies. In fact, I have great difficulty with them because of their social consequences, their impact on many people within our society, and I want to touch on that tonight. But I also want to touch on why I do not think this particular package of bills is the right set of measures to deal with the social problems that poker machines cause. I have four main concerns, and I will use this opportunity tonight to outline them.
Poker machines are part of Australian life today. We know from the Productivity Commission inquiry that there are some 600,000 Australians who play pokies regularly—that is, they play at least once a week—and the vast majority of those people do so safely. They enjoy doing it. They like the fun involved and sometimes the camaraderie involved. They like going down to their local club, pub or casino to have a punt, and that is all very well. Personally, I do not get into it, but that has nothing to do with it. These people do enjoy it; and, in some respects, who are we to say that they cannot enjoy that?
But we also know that there is an insidious side to pokies, and that is that they can be highly addictive. The research says that, the Productivity Commission has articulated that, and we know that that addiction leads to massive problems for a great many people. In fact, about 15 per cent of the 600,000 people who play regularly have very serious problems and, indeed, are defined by the Productivity Commission as problem gamblers, having an addiction to it. That addiction can not only destroy their individual lives but also have a very significant impact on their family’s lives and the lives of others who are around them.
I am part of the Coalition Taskforce on Gambling Reform, and we have been looking into some of these questions. We have had submissions from various stakeholders who tell us stories of some of the damage that gambling has done to families across the country. It is a very serious issue. We also know that the cost impact of the damage which poker machines cause is estimated to be about $4.7 billion per annum, according to the Productivity Commission. So it is a huge cost to our community from a social perspective and it can have very damaging impacts on individuals and their family and friends.
As part of the work of the gambling reform task force, we have looked at, considered and heard submissions on a number of possible ways to address some of these issues.
We have had submissions in relation to the spin rates, in relation to precommitment technology and in relation to limiting the size of the bets. I have said previously that I think it was a mistake, in my own state of Victoria, to allow the proliferation of poker machines into many, many clubs and pubs across the state. Possibly we should have just kept poker machines in a smaller number of larger centres rather than having that proliferation. But it is very difficult to roll that back now.
The problem with this policy area, particularly for Liberals, is that there is a fundamental clash of values at stake. On one hand we strongly believe in individual liberty and that people should have the right to do as they please—to gamble if they want to gamble, to spend their money on that rather than on something else if that is what they choose and that is what they want to do. We believe in the right of businesses to be able to offer products, services and entertainments to the community; it should be up to them. On the other hand, we know of the immense social consequences that can have for that small proportion. We have to balance those two things out. I personally think that the balancing is out of whack at the moment in Australia and that further measures need to be put in place. But the question is: what measures should be put in place? And who should put in place those measures? That is what it comes down to.
From the federal perspective there is always pressure on us to be seen to be doing something in a particular area when an issue arises. There is pressure on all members of parliament: you must go and do something, even if that issue actually resides at a council level or a state level. We see it in many instances. We see it in environmental regulations, we see it in schools, we see it in TAFEs and we see it elsewhere, in traditionally state or local council areas, where there is enormous pressure on us to do things on top of those other levels. Sometimes it is very worthwhile to do it, but at other times it just duplicates the activity and just creates more bureaucracy. In the environmental space, for example, it has done exactly that. By having the federal government involved in all the environmental approvals, we have actually added a layer of complexity and bureaucracy and are not getting better environmental outcomes. In fact, sometimes we are getting worse ones, but great delays occur as a result.
So we must be very careful not to impinge on traditionally state or local council areas when we put forward legislation. That is one of the reasons I have a concern about this package. It creates a massive bureaucracy in Canberra to largely replicate what state governments are already doing. As I mentioned, we have seen that in other portfolios. We know that the state governments have largely been in control of the operation and licensing of poker machines, in particular—the poker machine manufacturing licences and the hotel licences et cetera. Rather than working cooperatively with the states to try to get them to initiate some improvements, which I think would have been better, this set of bills tries to duplicate a lot of what the states are doing.
Perhaps the case could be made that the states are not doing enough and that therefore the federal government needs to intervene over the top and create this additional bureaucracy. But in this instance the key measure contained within this bill is for precommitment technology. Indeed, we know that every state and territory at the moment is moving towards asking machine manufacturers to install precommitment technology. In fact, many of the industry players themselves are doing that. So the case has not been made as to why we need to create this super-regulator over the top of the state regulations in order to fulfil that objective of precommitment technology, because it actually is already occurring at the state level.
My second concern with this package of legislation is the time line for the implementation of the measures and therefore the cost associated with them. The legislation requires that new machines manufactured or imported from the end of 2013 must be capable of supporting precommitment technology and that all machines must be capable of supporting precommitment technology by 2016. We understand that this simply cannot practically be implemented within that time frame. We have been advised by the Gaming Technologies Association, which is the sole body of industry technical expertise in Australia, that the time lines simply cannot be met. So the government is asking us to pass a package requiring that certain dates be met but which the technology providers are saying is impossible. Further, one of the problems is that there is no clear definition of what precommitment actually means. The Gaming Technologies Association states:
While everyone is talking about pre-commitment, no one in government can explain what that means in practice for the design of the gaming machine and its software.
So we have an issue there about rushed implementation, which cannot be done, based on what we have been advised. In addition, there are no detailed specifications as to what is actually required to be implemented for those machines. And it is not just us saying that; in fact, the Productivity Commission warned against rushing the uniform approach that is within this legislation. Rather, they suggested a staged approach, involving partial precommitment and then a trial of full precommitment. That is what should have been done, rather than, as in this legislation, putting a mandated system across the board in a very short period of time.
This gets to my third concern with the package, and that is that there is little evidence that the system being proposed will work and in fact a trial should have been done first before mandating a particular result. Bear in mind that, according to the Australian Hotels Association, implementing what this package is suggesting will cost about a billion dollars in New South Wales and Queensland alone.
That is a huge sum of money. Maybe that would be worth it, but we simply do not know and what we should be doing is testing it first. Let us have the trial first, let us find out what the results are. If we introduce voluntary precommitment, how many people are likely to take it up? What is the impact? Does it reduce problem gambling or do people just go to other forms of gambling if we make it more difficult for them at the poker machine level? That is the whole point of a trial. We should have them. The initial approach was indeed to have a trial of voluntary precommitment here in the ACT. It was supposed to be going ahead. We were supposed to have a trial for 12 to 24 months. We were supposed to be able to evaluate that trial and then come out with policy. This is jumping the gun. We are imposing a multibillion dollar cost on an industry when we do not actually have any evidence that that cost will produce anything. That is one of the core critiques of this package.
My final concern with the package is that it actually does not contain the most effective measure to tackle problem gambling—that is, the provision of additional counselling and support services. We know from the research, and we have heard this on the coalition’s gambling task force, that that actually is what is required to assist people who have addictions. They do need greater structured support and they do need greater counselling services to be able to deal with their addiction. That is what we know works today. Yet this package, ostensibly to address problem gambling, does not contain that. That is my fourth concern with this package.
Like on so many occasions, the government’s intent with package may be fine. They have an intent to try to address the instances of problem gambling in our community. I think that intent is an admirable one. However, this package gives me no confidence that it will actually address the problem at hand. Rather, I think it will be imposing a very expensive solution on an industry when there is no evidence that it will work. I think it will be a rushed implementation for the industry. They have said it cannot actually be delivered within that time line and it does not actually contain the core thing that we know works now—that is, additional counselling and support services for the people who are suffering.
Let me repeat: gambling is a problem in our community. Yes, we need to do more to support those people who are having serious problems. However, I do not think this package before us is the package we should be approving . Rather, the government should be consulting further, trialling a number of different solutions and then implementing some serious measures following those trials.