Gambling Regulation Amendment (Gaming Machine Arrangements) Bill 2017 Second Reading

31 Oct 2017

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 I rise to speak on behalf of the Victorian Greens on the Gambling Regulation Amendment (Gaming Machine Arrangements) Bill 2017. This government had a real opportunity before the pokies licences expire in 2022 to put in place a tough regime for pokies operators that would genuinely reduce harm from these machines. These machines have been around since the 1990s and have damaged lives, have destroyed families and are draining billions of dollars from Victorians every year.

Instead the government has squibbed it. The pokies operators win from this, Crown Casino wins, problem gamblers lose and the communities lose — those communities that many regard as Labor heartland are all losing. In fact this legislation is so wide of the mark that is needed to address the harm of pokies in this state that the Greens cannot support this bill.

It is incredible in fact that this bill is even up for debate, given the extraordinary allegations that have been made against Crown Casino and the operation of their pokies. Looking at some of those allegations that have been reported, we have got allegations that engineers have been told to illegally disable buttons to encourage more bets; we have got allegations that patrons have been given plastic picks to jam buttons down for continuous spins on pokies; we have got allegations that machines have had their play history cleared to reduce mandatory payouts; and we have got allegations that some machines are apparently paying out well below the compulsory rate of 85 per cent. These are just some of the allegations that have been levelled against Crown Casino — and in fact not just against Crown Casino but against the regulator itself — and its failing to properly address these issues when they came to its attention. So it is extraordinary that we would actually be debating this bill that will set the framework for how pokies are licensed in this state for decades, when these allegations are yet to be properly investigated and the truth has not yet come out about them.

Our message to the government would be either to at least wait until these allegations against Crown Casino and the regulator have been properly investigated or to go back to the drawing board and come up with something better or negotiate with the Greens in the upper house to come up with some changes to this bill that would actually properly reduce the harm of pokies in this state.

This bill is a missed opportunity in that it maintains the existing number of pokies licences for decades. Again, there has been some confusion as to whether these unused licences — I think there might be a few hundred around — can be added to the tally. It maintains these numbers when these numbers should actually be reduced. Certainly we should be looking at reducing pokies numbers in this state by a figure of around 25 per cent.

We have got licences going from 10-year licences to potentially 20-year licences. This is when we should actually be reducing the length of those licences. Maintaining it at 10 years would be good, but I think we could go even further — down to five years — so that we could be reviewing those licences much more quickly and certainly give councils a lot more power in deciding where pokies are put in their communities. These are the communities that are assisting problem gamblers. They see the effects of problem gambling, particularly with pokies, and certainly they need to be given a very strong formal legislative role in being able to decide when and where pokies go in their communities.

We have seen the limits being placed on EFTPOS withdrawals being touted as some big, major benefit of this legislation. The reality is we got rid of ATMs from pokies venues some years ago, and I think that was something that my colleagues in the upper house were pushing for in previous terms of Parliament. We have already had this ban on cash in pokies venues, and these EFTPOS machines are now being used as a way around that. To put a $500 cap on it still means that you have got people withdrawing hundreds of dollars of cash in pokies venues. The government’s own study found that the average problem gambler averages $318 a session while a non-problem gambler withdraws around $66 per session, so a $500 cap does not even touch the sides of the issue here. I think the touting of that figure as some sort of big achievement completely misses the mark of what is actually needed.

We have got this bill providing for cashless gambling, which I think is a really concerning development. With cashless gambling you can put credit onto a card or a piece of paper and put that into the machine. My real concern is that people will lose more because this will simply just churn more money back into the machines. It is being pushed by the pokies industry as a way of squeezing more money out of problem gamblers.

We have got a change to the 50-50 rule between clubs and hotels when it should be maintained. We have got an increase in the maximum number of hotel entitlements owned by one operator when this needs to be reduced. This bill certainly misses the mark in terms of what is required to effectively address pokies in this state.

There are a couple of things that we would like to keep. I thought the member for Burwood’s speech was going okay until he complained about the increased taxes paid by the industry; unlike him, I think we should keep those. I think that is something we would look favourably upon, and it also does not put the poker machine entitlements up for auction.

There are, however, a whole range of policies and proposals that could be put in place to better reduce harm from pokies. We could be seeing venues closed for a number of hours a day. My understanding is that they need to be open for 20 hours a day. That could be reduced. It would give a bit of breathing space to problem gamblers.

We could be looking at making sure that all machines are low intensity. I know the Productivity Commission has done a lot of work and made recommendations around this. We could ensure that instead of high-intensity poker machines we have low-intensity ones, with maximum losses of around $100 an hour, a load-up limit of around $20 by limiting the amount of money that can be loaded into a machine at any one time, and jackpots of no more than $500. I think those are certainly some worthwhile proposals.

We could have $1 bets, and that is something the Greens have been pushing hard. I remember we introduced legislation in the previous Parliament to set a maximum $1 bet limit. I actually came into the public gallery for that debate. Unfortunately it was voted down by both the government and the opposition at the time. We have got people just hitting those buttons. Generally having $1 bets is not going to affect the non-problem gambler, but it is going to address problem gambling, where you can actually reduce the maximum that can be lost over an hour from about $840 to around the $100 or $120 mark. Again, from the figures I have been given, 88 per cent of recreational gamblers already spend less than $1 per spin, so this is not going to affect the average punter but it will have a meaningful effect on reducing problem gambling.

We could certainly look at mandatory precommitment again. It is unfortunate that that never got introduced nationwide. Certainly it would be very good to have a mandatory precommitment, not this voluntary precommitment and certainly not a voluntary precommitment that, from my understanding, will be combined with a rewards card or some sort of loyalty card with venues. That is deeply, deeply concerning.

We need to put these measures in place because the people who are overwhelmingly harmed the most by pokies are disadvantaged communities. If you look at, for example, the councils in my electorate, you have got about $28 million lost in the City of Port Phillip and $23.5 million in the City of Stonnington — and I think they are pretty large amounts. But when you go to Dandenong, it is $119 million; in Werribee, $97 million; and in the City of Casey, $124 million. It is these areas where there is disadvantage that we are getting the most harm from pokies. I do feel, even in my own community where we do have pockets of disadvantage, it is those people who are most affected by pokies.

A link has also been established between family violence and problem gambling. The Royal Commission into Family Violence found there was a clear link between problem gambling and family violence, so we would be hopeful that in addressing family violence, which I know this government and in fact all parties are committed to, we could make sure that addressing problem gambling is a part of that response. We know that relationships are being damaged and are reaching crisis point, families are neglected, trust is lost, and there is dishonesty, concealment, conflict — all those things are contributing to family violence.

We also need to stamp out the influence of the gambling industry and their political donations. We know that Crown Casino — the gambling industry — have donated tens of thousands of dollars to the Labor and Liberal parties, and certainly we welcome the changes to political donations laws. After pressure for many years in the upper house, and even in this chamber, the government has finally come to the table on donations law reform. But do not mention the by-election.

I think also that, on top of these changes they have made to donations laws, we not only need caps on donations but restrictions on where that money comes from, such as certain industries, like the gambling industry. We need to make sure that those restrictions apply to the local government level as well.

We need restrictions on lobbying. We had the ridiculous situation where we had Stephen Conroy, the Labor Party factional powerbroker, also acting as a lobbyist for the gaming industry — completely unacceptable.

To conclude, this bill is a missed opportunity. It is so wide of the mark of what we need in this state that the Greens cannot support it. We need to have an effective pokies regime in place after the current licences expire in 2022. We certainly think that we need to get to the bottom of these allegations against Crown Casino and the regulator before the government proceeds with this bill, so the Greens will be opposing this bill.

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