The Government’s Hard Gamble
By Kevin Andrews - Australian Polity - Volume 2 (Number 3)
Gambling addiction is a major problem for some Australians. For many others, gambling is a recreational activity that is enjoyed within personally set limits and the vast majority of gamblers do so responsibly. Problem gambling needs to be addressed, however, the recent discourse around mandatory pre-commitment to the exclusion of a proper debate about tackling problem gambling and consideration of alternative approaches is unhelpful in addressing gambling addiction.
For an issue that has become so prominent in the political discourse, problem gambling only affects less than one per cent of the Australian population with a further 1.7 per cent of the population facing a moderate risk of becoming problem gamblers. With such a small proportion of the Australian population being directly affected by gambling addiction, the response of the Government is entirely out of proportion.
When considering a new policy proposal, any government should first consider the following question: “will it work and what are the consequences?” Clearly, this has not occurred in this case with a government that prefers political expediency over sensible policy approaches.
The gambling industry employs over 150,000 Australians. A wrong policy approach to problem gambling could lead to significant job losses in the gambling industry that would directly affect the families of these employees. Furthermore, the gambling industry provides support to many community and sporting organisations and charities. It is fair to assume the gaming industry, in facing significant revenue shortfalls, would cut back on this valuable support. Any policy proposal needs to consider in detail its effect on the whole community.
The challenge in addressing problem gambling lies in striking the right balance between the right of Australians to gamble responsibly and the establishment of appropriate protection and support for the small number of people for whom gambling is a problem. It is necessary to appropriately address, mitigate against, and prevent problem gambling within a framework of personal responsibility and one that does not treat all gamblers as having a problem.
The proposed policy needs to consider more than just poker machines, it needs to consider all forms of gambling in order to address the issue of problem gamblers substituting one form of gambling for another. Any national policy approach needs to demonstrate the capacity to deliver meaningful and quantifiable outcomes that consider and apply to all forms of gambling.
The Gillard Government is proposing a mandatory pre-commitment scheme at the insistence of the Tasmanian Independent Member of Parliament, Mr Andrew Wilkie. The scheme would see every poker machine in Australia networked to a central database with every prospective gambler needing to pre-register with a personally set limit of what they are prepared to lose in any given time period. The crucial point here is that every prospective gambler would be treated as a problem gambler and there would be no upper threshold as to the amount a gambler could set their limit to. All this proposal would achieve is to add a further bureaucratic burden on the gambling industry and everyday Australians without helping gambling addicts address their problem.
The major flaw with the Gillard Government’s proposed scheme is that the limit set is entirely within the discretion of the individual. This means that there is nothing to stop a problem gambler from setting a high gambling limit, for example $100,000 a day even if only earning the average wage.
It is surprising that the Gillard Government and Mr Wilkie continue to fail to cite examples of implemented mandatory pre-commitment technology. Norway is the only nation to have introduced a mandatory pre-commitment scheme on poker machines. This begs the question: why is Norway not held out as the model for Australia? It might have something to do with the abysmal failure of that scheme. Since its introduction, Norwegian gamblers have simply switched to online gambling that offers fewer restrictions and causes more harm—problem gambling in Norway rose seventy per cent since the introduction of the scheme.
The Labor scheme fails to account for problem gamblers substituting other forms of gambling (without mandatory pre-commitment) for poker machines. This will likely lead to a transfer of problem gambling from clubs to online gambling that is based overseas and without the domestic regulatory framework available to address problem gambling.
The focus on one technology, on one form of gambling, and the opposition to the scheme from every state government makes it clear that the Gillard Government’s proposed mandatory pre-commitment scheme requires reconsideration. There are also significant concerns being raised by the gambling industry. Serious questions are being asked regarding the scheme’s implementation and management across different venues. There are legitimate privacy concerns surrounding the ownership and management of the data collected. It is unclear who will have access to the information and how it will be able to be used.
Another concern the Coalition has is the lack of consideration of the effects that this scheme will have on the community. Should clubs face significant shortfalls in revenue, it is very likely that this will lead to a decline in vital support to community groups and organisations. Local sporting clubs, hospitals, local groups, seniors and community events—among others—will be hardest hit by the decline in local clubs’ ability to provide support to their communities.
The Coalition, under the then Leader of the Opposition the Hon. Dr Brendan Nelson, called on the then Rudd Government to commission the Productivity Commission to investigate the issue of problem gambling. Since the Productivity Commission delivered its report in February 2010, the Rudd and subsequently the Gillard Governments have dithered on acting upon the Commission’s recommendations. No progress was made on the recommendation until it was politically necessary to secure Mr Wilkie’s support for a minority government—and only then it covered just poker machines.
The Productivity Commission comprehensively considered a variety of issues within Australia’s gambling industry. It looked into the economic, social, workforce, tourism, online, and harm-related aspects of the industry. However, the Gillard Government has neglected the opportunity this has provided to work on an industry-wide strategy to tackle problem gambling, while the legitimate right of all adult Australians to gamble responsibly.
The Coalition is seeking a way forward on gambling reform. We want to find a solution that is balanced, will work in helping those facing gambling addiction, minimises the negative consequences on the community and the gambling industry, and is not simply born out of political expediency.
The Australian federation is a product of the Commonwealth Constitution with the ability of the Commonwealth Parliament to legislate restricted to defined competencies. Before any action on problem gambling could be taken, it would be necessary to consider where the competencies for such action may lie. The various states have primary jurisdiction to regulate gambling and they are the primary recipients of government revenue from gambling. The Coalition believes that the Commonwealth Government needs to consult with the various state governments before any action is taken on gambling reform.
The Coalition has a long tradition of working within the constitutional framework of our federation in order to deliver appropriate solutions to national problems. It was a Coalition Government that first took the issue of problem gambling to the national level establishing the first Ministerial Council on Gambling in 2000. There is an argument for state administered nationally consistent minimum standards in relation to dealing with problem gambling without the need for the Commonwealth to necessarily take over the space. A potential program that the Coalition is considering is nationally consistent, state administered, ‘self-exclusion’ programs to allow individuals to restrict their access to gambling venues.
In line with one of the recommendations of the Productivity Commission, the Coalition is also considering the implementation of a partial pre-commitment system that would permit players to set spending limits at all venues in a jurisdiction on a voluntary basis. This is consistent with current industry practice, whereby many clubs and casinos already have voluntary pre-commitment schemes operating. The Coalition believes that the Government should investigate promoting and furthering these existing schemes together with other measures to mitigate problem gambling.
The Coalition also believes that more and better targeted counselling and support services should be offered to problem gamblers. The Coalition is inclined to think that problem gambling is best addressed by helping individuals overcome their problem, rather than changing their environment. Furthermore, the Coalition would seek to move towards a national training regime for those engaged in the gambling industry to better equip them to identify problem gamblers and provide the means to address and prevent problem gambling.
In 2001, the Howard Government introduced the Interactive Gambling Act that regulates online gambling in Australia. The Coalition does not support any relaxation of these laws. However, there is concern in the community that these laws are not adequately enforced and that there is continued access in Australia to online casino and poker machine style games. The Coalition is interested in seeking community input into these matters in order to further strengthen these laws to limit the risk of access to online gambling in Australia.
The Coalition views gambling as a legitimate industry and that the industry should act responsibly. The Coalition, therefore, would like to investigate legislative means to prohibit gaming venues, betting firms and agencies, and online gambling providers offering credit to customers. The Coalition will not, however, prohibit bookmakers “laying off” as part of their professional business practice nor prohibit the existing approved arrangements for VIPs in Australian casinos established under state laws. Furthermore, the Coalition will be considering fair and reasonable limits to the advertising of gambling in order to address the problems related to inducing problem gamblers to gamble and limit exposure of minors to gambling products.
In formulating policies on problem gambling, the Coalition seeks input from industry, community, and other interested groups on the various issues and approaches canvassed in its discussion paper. It is of critical importance that the policy to address problem gambling is considered, robust, practical, and that it will work with the support of the gambling industry and the various state governments that are primarily responsible for gambling policy. Furthermore, it is important that the Coalition’s response to problem gambling addresses all forms of gambling, particularly online gambling. This is why the Coalition is interested in consulting widely with community and interested groups in order to develop a solution to gambling addiction that will help those who are most in need.
The core principle of any Coalition policy is empowering the individual to take responsibility for themselves. The Coalition does not believe that mandatory pre-commitment on all poker machines will achieve a reduction in problem gambling. It is nothing more than another example of this Government’s commitment to the nanny state and its elitist approach to policy in telling everyone what they can and cannot do. It ignores all other forms of gambling and risks repeating the mistakes of the Norwegian scheme where problem gamblers simply substituted one form of gambling for another. It also does not address the personal problems that most people addicted to gambling experience. What is needed is an approach that enables the individual to take responsibility for themselves while providing the necessary support for those that need it most. Just treating all gamblers as problem gamblers will not solve the problem—it will just make matters worse and make it harder to help those most in need.