04 December 2013
Andrew spoke on the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013.
I have a number of concerns with the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013, one of which is the diversity of the bill. I think it would be more appropriate, when there are a number of controversial issues to be decided in this place, to split them into separate bills. I spoke yesterday at some length about my concerns with the current government’s attack on the universities. I will not repeat those comments but I would like to associate them with this bill as well.Today I will use my limited time to focus on another area in the bill of great concern to me—this government’s determination to wind back the modest poker machine reforms of the 43rd Parliament. Why the new government would do this escapes me, quite frankly. The scope of the poker machine problem in this country is by now well remarked upon and at least one thing this government will not be able to destroy is that the 43rd Parliament shone more light on the issue of poker machine problem gambling. We have helped to take away a little bit of the stigma of it. More people are now seeking help and poker machine revenue nationally is down markedly. That is a positive step and not something the new government can overcome.
I will just recap. The 2010 Productivity Commission report into gambling in this country, the second major report by the commission, revealed a number of quite dramatic statistics. For example, it revealed that something like 95,000 Australians have a problem with poker machines. They lose much more than they can afford to lose. Those 95,000 people are, between them, losing something like $5,000 million a year on the pokies. From other sources we have learned that something like 15 per cent of Australians who gamble weekly have a gambling problem and that something like another 15 per cent of people who gamble weekly on the pokies are at risk of becoming problem gamblers. In other words, almost a third of the people who are playing the pokies weekly either have a serious problem or are at risk of developing a serious problem with the machines.
There is some good research out of Tasmania which shows that, for every problem gambler, between five and 10 people are affected. These are mums, dads, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, work colleagues, people they manage, bosses, friends—any number of people. When you add all this up, the number of people adversely affected by poker machines in Australia is well over 1 million. Surely that is more than enough people to make any government determined to take strong and decisive action and finally do something about it.
The human face of this is remarkable. I would like to think that every member of parliament would sit down from time to time with people who are concerned with the scourge of poker machines, would sit down with people who are affected by poker machines and would listen to the stories—would hear at least some of the stories that I have heard as an outspoken advocate for reform. They should hear, for example, from the people who have gone to jail. Good research out of Victoria shows that problem gambling, predominantly from the pokies, is the second most prevalent cause of crime in that state, second only to drug abuse. They should hear stories like the one I heard some time ago about a family in my electorate. After repeated attempts by Aurora to put them on repayment plans, they finally had their power cut off. What became of that family? What became of those children? What did they do for a hot meal? What did they do for a hot shower? What did they do for lights at night? No doubt those children would be some of the ones who take advantage of the public school breakfast programs that need to be run in my electorate and in any number of electorates.
A couple introduced themselves to me some time ago and they had been bankrupted by a dishonest employee. The employee had taken so much money out of the till over a period of years that ultimately it was the main reason for that business going broke, for the owners being bankrupted and for them losing everything. I am pleased to report that eventually they did get back on their feet. There are stories of suicides. It is unsurprising that the rate of suicide amongst problem gamblers is markedly higher than it is for the rest of the community. There are a thousand stories. I could stand here all day and all night and I would not run out of stories to tell. Some of them would sound very familiar to people in this place.
Why, when the problem is so big and affects so many people so brutally, would this government want to
overturn the modest reforms of the 43rd Parliament? The reason escapes me. It is not like they do not have public opinion on their side. Poker machine reform was such a hot topic in the 43rd Parliament that it prompted a number of researchers and media outlets to commission a number of polls. Over time, right around the country, the polls consistently showed that a clear majority of Australians wanted strong and decisive poker machine reform. If anything is remarkable it is that there was not stronger reform in the 43rd Parliament, and now it is surprising that the new government wants to wind back even those modest
reforms that were made. I almost got myself into a bit of strife yesterday when asking a question of the Prime Minister. The gist of it was how is it that so many avowed Christians can seem so uncaring when it comes to gambling reform. I think it was a fair question to ask. To pitch it in a slightly different way, how is it that people who claim to be compassionate, who claim that they stand up for a fair deal, a fair go and want to help the battler, be so uncaring when it comes to gambling reform? How can people who came into this chamber this morning and bowed their heads and joined in the Lord’s Prayer then be so uncaring when it comes to gambling reform?
If Jesus Christ were sitting in the chamber now, what would he say about poker machines in Australia? What would he do if he were in this place? I am sure he would take a much more compassionate approach. I am sure he would not be a party to overturning the modest poker machine reforms of the 43rd Parliament. Frankly, I find the piousness and the sanctimonious behaviour —the handwringing, the bowed heads—hypocritical when those people are then not prepared to take strong, decisive action to help so many Australians who are often some of the most disadvantaged and lowest paid people in the land.
I note that yesterday the Prime Minister recommitted the government to working collaboratively with the states to put in place voluntary precommitment. The problem with that approach is that there is an abundance of research which shows unambiguously that voluntary precommitment does not work. The government is quick to criticise and to say that mandatory precommitment and $1 maximum bets on poker machines—pushed by me and many others— do not work and there is no research. That is baloney. There is an abundance of research that shows that $1 maximum bets and mandatory precommitment, where people must set a binding limit and the system locks them out for the rest of the day when they reach that limit, work. Similarly, there is an abundance of evidence to show that the government’s course of action, voluntary precommitment only, does not work. The government is not wanting to shine a light on or say too much about the fact that it is overturning a crucial part of the 43rd Parliament’s reform—section 33 of the act from that parliament, which requires the voluntary precommitment system to, in essence, be capable of mandatory precommitment at the flick of a switch. This government knows, and the industry knows, that that was the crucial part of the reform passed by the previous parliament. By rolling out a voluntary system that was capable of mandatory precommitment at the flick of a switch, a future federal, state or territory government would then have the option to flick the switch and the industry would have no excuses about it not working or being too expensive. That is at the heart of what this government is doing—ensuring that in the future machines will not be capable of mandatory precommitment. While this government might have an interest in voluntary precommitment, it is actually an interest in a completely worthless technology, a completely worthless reform. This government knows that making the system mandatory precommitment or mandatory precommitment ready, which is what the act requires, was the crucial part of the reform. Too many people in this place have been bought off by the poker machine industry, with players in the poker machine industry handing over $100,000, a couple of hundred thousand dollars or $1 million over time. Yes it is a political donation, yes it is declared and yes it seems clean under our regulatory framework, but, quite frankly, by my moral framework it is as much a corruption of good governance as a bagful of cash being handed over at the back of the building in the dark of night.
You know, in the few months after the 2010 federal election, the Australian Hotels Association and ClubsNSW donated $1.3 million to the Labor and Liberal parties—most of it, in fact, to the Liberal Party. There was no altruism about that. It was not a generous gift to help a buddy out. It was an investment—an investment which today is paying dividends. Jamie Packer handed over a couple of hundred thousand dollars to Katter’s Australian Party when this parliament was considering poker machine reforms. No-one hands over that sort of money without an expectation of—an unsaid demand for—a return on that investment. Well, it seems the industry has made some pretty good investments, and we are seeing it being returned today by the determination of this new government to overturn the very modest poker machine reforms of the 43rd Parliament.
I will not mince my words. The poker machine industry is every bit as fundamentally cruel and corrupt as anything you can imagine. It lives off the misery of problem gamblers. Five billion dollars out of the $9 billion lost in this country comes from problem gamblers. It is the cream on the top. It is the big fat profit the industry makes. The industry figures it cannot afford not to have problem gamblers. It is like a Ponzi scheme because, as people take their own lives or lose all their money or perhaps, fortunately, get over their gambling problem and come out one end, the monster has to be fed. It is a Ponzi scheme. The poker machine industry needs to recruit new problem gamblers every day to keep feeding the monster. That is the only way the poker machine industry continues to function. It is no wonder that the industry makes machines that are so addictive. The founder of Aristocrat, the big Australian company that makes poker machines and exports them globally, once said that the secret of Aristocrat’s success was that it learned to make a better mousetrap. Doesn’t that give the game of what the industry is up to away? In 2009, the former head of ClubsNSW, when talking about political fundraising, said:
There was absolutely the view that supporting fundraising helped our ability to influence people … We did support political party fundraising, which was a legitimate activity, and it certainly assisted us in gaining access …
Well, hasn’t it helped to gain access today! This new government is so determined to overturn the modest poker machine reforms of the 43rd Parliament. I can only hope that when this goes to the Senate there will be enough people of good heart, and in the next Senate there will be enough people of goodwill up there to stop this part of this bill—people like Family First, the DLP, Nick Xenophon and others. Maybe the Palmer United Party will also stand in the way, because the onus is now on the Senate to stop this. This is an inequitable and ill considered part of the bill by the new government, and it is a completely meaningless gesture which will not work when it comes to a pursuit of voluntary precommitment.