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Is there any hope for gambling reform in a new parliament?

The poker machine industry is a business with a lot at stake – about $11 billion a year, in fact. AAP/Paul Jeffers

Is there any hope for gambling reform in a new parliament?

The poker machine industry is a business with a lot at stake – about $11 billion a year, in fact. AAP/Paul Jeffers

Since then-prime minister Julia Gillard appointed Peter Slipper to the speaker’s chair in 2011, the gambling lobby has appeared triumphant in defeating any substantial reform of gambling regulation.

Slipper became speaker because Gillard was under enormous pressure to back down on her agreement with independent MP Andrew Wilkie. Wilkie had agreed to support her minority government in the parliament, but one of his conditions was to introduce a pre-commitment system for poker machines.

The gambling industry took this very seriously. ClubsNSW and various associates saw the reforms off with a highly effective and multi-pronged campaign.

Kevin Rudd was agitating for restoration to the prime ministership, and promised to abolish the pre-commitment deal. Nervous backbenchers were taking notice. Wilkie was let go, and Slipper’s defection from the Liberal Party meant Gillard kept the numbers on the floor of the House of Representatives.

Kevin Andrews, the Abbott government’s first social services minister, oversaw the abandonment of even the very modest reforms Gillard legislated after she reneged on her agreement with Wilkie. These involved the introduction over a period of time of:

  • a “voluntary” pre-commitment system;

  • imposition of a A$250 daily limit on ATM withdrawals in gambling venues;

  • establishment of a national gambling research centre; and

  • establishment of a national gambling regulator.

Only the research centre survived.

What is the federal government’s role?

State governments traditionally regulate gambling in Australia. They tend to work closely with “industry” to promote gambling’s benefits, as they see them.

These benefits include revenue for cash-strapped state treasuries (about $5.75 billion a year, $3.5 billion of it from pokies), glitzy tourist attractions (even if most of the money lost comes from locals), and happy gambling-business operators.

The downside – significant harm to gamblers and their families, friends and others – tends to be downplayed. Recent reports funded by the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, an arms-length government agency, puts the scale of gambling harm at about the same order of magnitude as the harms of alcohol.

A lack of effective policy from state governments is why Nick Xenophon, and others like Wilkie and the Greens, have looked to the federal government to reform Australia’s gambling environment.

But the powerful forces arrayed against reform have kept it off the table since Gillard’s backdown.

Where to start?

There’s little doubt the federal government can regulate gambling. It has clear power to make laws about telecommunications – thus, internet gambling is its domain. The Interactive Gambling Act, for all its faults, is evidence of that.

However, the corporations power given to the Commonwealth by the constitution also provides a basis for regulating any activity undertaken by a corporation. Gillard was convinced that her government could do so.

But as the events of 2010-13 demonstrated, power doesn’t always flow from the words of the constitution, however elegant. Well-resourced business interests, whether they’re clubs, hotels, casinos or multinational bookies, have a habit of wanting – and getting – their own way.

Right now there is no enthusiasm among the major parties for gambling reform. The Liberals’ 2013 gambling policy looked like the clubs wrote it. It doesn’t appear to have one for this election – and nor does Labor. Perhaps they learned their lessons last time around.

Nonetheless, the Coalition has proposed changes to the Interactive Gambling Act. But none of these have been legislated, nor is any draft legislation available.

If these changes do come into effect, they may well be positive. Prohibiting online in-play betting, credit betting, and establishing a national self-exclusion register would be positive steps.

What hasn’t been contemplated, by either major party, is a prohibition on gambling advertising during sporting broadcasts. It also wasn’t countenanced by the O’Farrell review of the Interactive Gambling Act, and wasn’t considered in the government’s response.

It is probably not the gambling industry that has been most effective on keeping that off the agenda, however. The revenue that flows from all those TV ads goes into the coffers of the broadcasting industry. From there, it finds its way onto the bottom line of the major sporting codes, via inflated broadcast rights.

It is hard to find a politician who wants to get on the bad side of the TV networks, sporting codes and bookmakers all at the same time.

However, a phase-out of TV gambling advertising is likely to be effective at reducing the uptake of gambling problems. It was an initial and successful element of the campaign against tobacco. Such a policy could be introduced over a number of years to allow the financial impacts to be factored in.

What about the pokies?

The biggest issue in Australian gambling, however, is the pokies. As Gillard found, this is a business with a lot at stake – about $11 billion a year, in fact, and largely in New South Wales.

Making pokies less addictive would be a great start to tackling the harm they bring. Changes to the machine’s features like the reinforcement schedules, uneven “reels”, and “losses disguised as wins” would help do this, as would reduced maximum bets and effective (not “voluntary”) pre-commitment.

Taxing giant clubs like the corporations they actually are might be a useful way to ensure the community benefits asserted by the gambling industry actually flow. This was certainly the Productivity Commission’s view.

It would be great to get out from under Australia’s reputation as the world’s biggest gambling losers. If Xenophon, Wilkie and others can influence the new parliament, the seeds of this might well be sown.