Senator FIFIELD (Victoria-Manager of Opposition Business in the Senate) (20:09):
I rise to speak on the package of gambling bills. From the outset, the coalition acknowledges that gambling is a major problem. I think that is a view shared by all colleagues in this place. The coalition does indeed support measures that will effectively tackle problem gambling and help to prevent and address gambling addiction. Any response to problem gambling has to recognise that most Australians gamble responsibly and that many Australians also rely on the sector for their jobs. The coalition supports voluntary precommitment, as do the states. Labor’s approach in this matter seems to depend on whom they have done a political deal with most recently and what the particular month of the year is.
The government’s proposed legislative package has a fairly sordid history. It has its origins in the political deal that the Prime Minister did with the member for Denison in order to keep the keys to the Lodge. It then moved on to the betrayal of the member for Denison and, now, it has moved on again to the capitulation of the once proud Australian Labor Party to the Australian Greens. We have seen this pattern from the government before, where the Australian Labor Party ultimately capitulates to the Greens. It is never an edifying spectacle, but it is one that we have become quite used to in this term of parliament.
The coalition is pretty concerned about the lack of time the government has permitted for proper consultation and review of this legislation. We are concerned because we have seen before the damage that is caused by rushed legislation, the mess that is left in the wake of ramming bills through this place and the inevitable need to go back and fix the problems that the government itself has created. We know that we are being rushed because in this chamber there is a guillotine hanging above our heads-including yours, Mr Deputy President-which is due to come down. This always happens with this government: as we get towards the end of a period of sitting, it is as certain as night following day that Senator Collins will reach for the cord, pull the guillotine blade up to the top and then let it drop at the hour of her and the Australian Greens’ choosing.
Above all else, we add our voice to the calls of many others that legislation of such alleged significance to addressing problem gambling in our community deserves much greater scrutiny and much greater community consultation. That is why we believe that a more thorough inquiry should have been undertaken, and that is why we tried to have the bill referred to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee. Indeed, I sought to amend the Selection of Bills Committee report on the floor here to see that happen and the Labor Party and the Greens combined to stop that happening.
The reality is that, despite all of the complexity and despite the clear fact that states and territories will be compelled to play a key role in the new duplication arrangements for regulation, the government has steamrolled ahead with next to no consultation with other jurisdictions. Of even more concern is the fact that the government has wilfully ignored all the warnings from agencies and organisations who are expert in this area. As for the industry itself, the thousands of business owners and clubs involved in the hospitality sector have been not only ignored but locked out.
There can be no clearer example of just what lengths this government will go to in order to cling to office than the package of legislation we see before us. These bills would see a further extension of Commonwealth influence over state and territory jurisdictions. Gambling has-historically, traditionally-always been something that has been regulated by the states. We believe that merely creating regulatory duplication and legislating in an area that falls within the purview of the states is not going to help problem gamblers.
The government has also sought to gloss over what will be a significant impost on pubs and clubs throughout Australia, and that is the cost of implementation for those organisations. For smaller venues in rural and regional Australia-areas which I concede the Australian Labor Party do not have a lot of experience in, because they do not have many members or senators who represent those areas or are based in those areas-these new laws would have a direct impact on financial viability. That in turn means that there will be an impact on employment. Manufacturers and operators of machines have also warned of the dangers of widespread noncompliance and about the fact that the government’s own time frames are unachievable. We need only look at the soon-to-start so-called trial of precommitment in the ACT to realise just how disconnected this government is. The trial has not started, but already the government’s plan-its intention, its time line-has come undone.
Over the last year or so many of us in this place have travelled around Australia and visited many of the thousands of clubs around the nation. The clubs are of all shapes and sorts and sizes. They form local community hubs and are run for the benefit of the community, whether they are sporting clubs, surf-lifesaving clubs, RSL clubs or workers clubs. They fund important programs, social activities, sporting activities and youth events in their local communities. They are, in effect, significant philanthropic organisations, and they support many good causes.
So, if there is a simple message from the coalition to the Labor Party in relation to this legislation it is to stop fighting ideological battles on behalf of the Australian Greens and stop attacking good community organisations that do much that is positive in our community. I think one of the reasons we find ourselves in this situation is that not everyone appreciates and understands the club culture, which is particularly strong in New South Wales and Queensland and is unique in those states. We do see the club culture throughout Australia, but it is particularly strong in those states. I do wonder whether having a Victorian Prime Minister might be one of the reasons there is not a greater appreciation of the club culture in New South Wales and Queensland. I am a Victorian Senator, it is true, but I did spend most of my secondary schooling and university and had my first job in Sydney, so I do have a very good appreciation of the club culture in New South Wales. Of course, a well-rounded politician, regardless of the state they come from, should be in a position to have a good feel and sense of the Australian culture in all its guises and in all states, but that is something that seems to be a challenge for this government and for this Prime Minister in particular.
Labor’s obsession with mandatory precommitment means that, if given the opportunity, they would flick the switch and turn it on. This legislation, although it is under the guise of establishing only voluntary precommitment, really is the basis and the infrastructure for mandatory precommitment. The government pretend that they are not interested in mandatory precommitment, but we know what their true agenda is. Tackling problem gambling requires a measured response that does not just look at poker machines but looks at the underlying problem of gambling addiction.
Senator Xenophon: Blaming the players now, are you?
Senator FIFIELD: I don’t think I blame players at all, Senator Xenophon. I will take the interjection, but I cannot see what I said that sounds as though I am blaming players. I do concede that there is a strong element of self-responsibility for any individual in our community and that every individual has choices. Some people make good choices and some people make bad choices, but that is not to deny the reality of gambling addiction. I do not think they are mutually exclusive points to make in this debate. Obviously counselling is important and support services are important, and the coalition is committed to addressing problem gambling. But what we are not interested in is dealing with an issue such as gambling on an ideological basis. As I have said before, I do not think duplicating regulation with the states is necessarily an answer.
But let me be clear again: the coalition does support voluntary precommitment. The states support voluntary precommitment. The territories support voluntary precommitment. The sector-the industry-also supports voluntary precommitment. But, as I mentioned before, Labor have already tried to legislate mandatory precommitment. They tried, but they failed.
In my opening remarks I warned of the dangers of rushing this sort of legislation, as is occurring today. The dangers of doing that were on display in the other place a mere few hours ago, where, moments after this bill passed the House, the government sought to bring the bill back to the House because they had discovered that there were 20 or so amendments that they had realised, at the death knock, were needed to fix the legislation which had already passed the House. I cannot say that that gives me a high level of confidence as to the efficacy of this bill in achieving its stated objectives. It is a worry. I wish that this chamber had taken the opportunity that the opposition sought to provide for this legislation to be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Public Administration for further scrutiny.
The manufacturers say that the time lines are unrealistic and that there are serious technical deficiencies. Industry has voiced concerns that the time lines will force mass compliance. Again, as I have said before, rural and regional venues will struggle to finance and cope with the costs that government seek to force upon them. The government’s objective is really mandatory precommitment. They want the technology in place but they tell venues that it will not be switched on. On the other hand they tell advocates of mandatory precommitment that machines will be mandatory-ready. The government is trying to play both sides.
Let me take a moment to highlight just one issue-that being the government’s approach to their trial in the ACT, and whether that trial and the compensation measures in place will pump money into Labor clubs in the ACT and where that money might end up. As I have said before, the trial in the ACT has been delayed. The clubs say that it is proving difficult. If the government cannot even properly plan the regulation of a trial then it is reasonable to wonder how the government might endeavour to regulate an entire industry across the nation.
The Labor Party do not understand how positive an impact clubs have in Australia and particularly, as I have said, the importance of them in New South Wales and Queensland. The clubs do good work. They are run by good people and they make an important contribution. But I come back again to the need to look at the causes of problem gambling. We are committed to doing what can reasonably and responsibly and effectively be done to help problem gamblers and to prevent problem gambling.
As I reach the end of my time in this debate it is important for me to reflect on the numbers of people who are employed in the gaming industry. We know it is a major employer with around 67,000 staff directly involved in gaming activities, a further 105,000 nongaming staff are employed in casinos, hotels and clubs that offer gaming and almost 50,000 are employed in the racing industry. It is also important in closing to put the issue of gaming in perspective. Approximately four per cent of Australians gamble weekly and approximately 15 per cent of that group are problem gamblers. The Productivity Commission estimates that less than one per cent of the population, all up, are problem gamblers. That is not, for one minute, to diminish the significant impact of problem gambling in the lives of those individuals or the effects on their families. Not for one second do I or anyone in the opposition seek to do that, but I do think it is important to have the context of this issue carefully presented.
In summary, the coalition has identified six areas of concern with the government’s legislation: the extension of Commonwealth influence over state and territory jurisdictions; the lack of time given to industry to prepare effectively for implementation of the new measures; the cost of implementation; the negative impacts on industry and employment, especially on smaller venues, those in rural and regional areas and those premises already experiencing financial hardship; the risk of widespread noncompliance; and a number of matters associated with the use of ATMs.
As I conclude I want to acknowledge the sincerity of Senator Xenophon in these matters. While we may have different conclusions as to the best way to tackle the issue of problem gambling, I think it is appropriate to acknowledge the long interest that Senator Xenophon has taken in these issues-not just here in the Australian Senate, but also beforehand in the South Australian parliament. I do not know, but he might be the world’s first person elected on an anti-pokies platform. He may enlighten us about that. What causes concern to those of us on this side of the House is that the government have absolutely no consistency in relation to issues of gaming and gambling. Senator Xenophon does, but the government do not. Their position changes depending on their fortunes in the House of Representatives. They did obtain an extra vote in the form of Mr Slipper, and that seemed to have a dramatic effect on their view. We will be opposing this legislation.