Casino Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Implementation and Other Matters) Bill 2022
I am pleased to rise to speak to the Casino Legislation Amendment (Royal Commission Implementation and Other Matters) Bill 2022. Given all of the pieces of legislation that this government has prioritised in the last few weeks of this term, from jailing peaceful protesters to creating new criminal offences, it is nice to be here on the very last day of government business debating a bill that actually does some good.
This bill is implementing the third tranche of recommendations from the Royal Commission into the Casino Operator and Licence, including the recommendation to reduce gambling harm at the casino. The introduction of carded gaming and mandatory precommitment at the casino are sensible harm reduction measures that the Greens are pleased to support. We know that gambling harm is a serious public health issue that negatively affects individuals, families and communities. The gambling industry has completely shirked its responsibility for the harm it causes to communities, and the lack of any real intervention from government has allowed the industry to make billions in profits by preying on the vulnerable.
In his report Commissioner Finkelstein was especially critical of the harms that were allowed to occur at Crown, saying:
Perhaps the most damning discovery by the Commission is the manner in which Crown Melbourne deals with the many vulnerable people who have a gambling problem. The cost to the community of problem gambling is enormous. It is not only the gambler who suffers. It also affects many other people, and institutions.
Crown Melbourne had for years held itself out as having a world’s best approach to problem gambling. Nothing can be further from the truth.
The report recommended a major reform to how the casino manages gambling harm: introducing a mandatory precommitment system. Mandatory precommitment requires patrons to set limits on gaming machines, before they play, on the amount of money they are willing to lose, the amount of time they will play or both. This is a harm minimisation measure, and we and other gambling harm minimisation advocates have been calling for it for years. Evidence from trials in Australia indicates that binding precommitment systems provide the best protection from gambling harm.
Here in Victoria we have had a voluntary precommitment system in place since 2015, but the YourPlay system has been a complete failure since it was introduced. It is used by hardly any players and on very few machines—on just a tiny 0.01 per cent of gaming machine turnover in Victorian hotels and clubs. Contrary to its purpose, it has done absolutely nothing to reduce gambling harm. Instead we have seen ever-increasing losses since the scheme was introduced. In the last financial year Victorians lost over $2.2 billion to the pokies. This July we hit a record monthly high of $270 million lost. And since the pokies were introduced to Victoria 30 years ago, we have lost a staggering $66 billion.
We welcome the government’s intention to transform YourPlay into a full, mandatory precommitment system at Crown Casino with enforceable limits on losses and on time. As the first step towards mandatory precommitment, the bill will require any person who is a member of the loyalty scheme at the casino to use YourPlay to track their play. It will also allow the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission to publish information about individual venue compliance with YourPlay obligations.
Given the complete failure of the program to date, the Greens will be watching the implementation of the YourPlay reforms and the data that comes from this very closely. The full precommitment system will be implemented at Crown Casino by December 2025. However, our question for the government is: why stop there? When the government introduced the first piece of legislation implementing recommendations from the royal commission, it proudly stated that it was going further than the recommendations and introducing even stronger measures than were recommended. It is disappointing that this has not been followed through when implementing the harm minimisation recommendations.
If this government was serious about reducing harm from gambling, it would know that gambling harm does not just happen in the gilded rooms of Crown Casino. In fact when it comes to the pokies, the vast majority of harm occurs outside the casino. Crown has just 2600, or 10 per cent, of Victoria’s 26 321 poker machines. The rest of our pokies are out in the community, in suburban clubs and hotels, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are regularly lost at the pokies each and every year.
In the last financial year the top five local government areas for pokies losses were Brimbank, Casey, Geelong, Hume and Whittlesea. While the pokies were shut for much of 2020 and 2021—a small respite from years of billion-dollar pokies losses—we are once again back on track for record levels of gambling harm. This July we hit a record monthly high of $270 million lost. If losses continue at this rate, the 2022–23 financial year will break records for amounts lost at the pokies and for the harm done.
The sheer scale of harm should be a wake-up call for all of us, and I know lots of communities are keenly aware of the harm caused by the pokies and are pushing to get out of pokies and to get pokies out of their clubs and hotels for good. But they have had their hands tied, and you have to look no further than what has been happening at our local government level for years to understand the scale of the resistance to transformative action by the state government. We have had so many local governments spearheading advocacy for harm reduction measures and the reform and reduction of pokies losses and harms—including, for example, by introducing harm reduction measures like differential rates, one of the few levers that local governments have to reduce the harm from gambling—only to be blocked by the state government, undoing the very little good work that is available within the laws that we have, given the very close relationship between this government and the predatory gambling industry.
Earlier this month I was horrified to read that the Premier was refusing to allow pokies venues to get out of their licences. The St Kilda Football Club is among a number of venues looking to get out of the gambling industry for good, but the government has refused, saying venues had already agreed to a 20-year agreement for gaming machine entitlements. These 20-year contracts have locked us into 20 years of escalating gambling harm. This government should be seriously considering buyback schemes, which have been successful in other jurisdictions and which allow gaming venues to hand back their pokie machines and be bought out of their licences by the government. It is a model that empowers venues to move to new sources of revenue and to stand up to the predatory gaming industry by saying, ‘Enough is enough’. It is extremely disappointing that the government will not even entertain this as an option. Perhaps it is because the budget is too reliant on the billions they receive in gambling tax and the government is too scared to find replacement revenue to ever take any serious steps towards reducing gambling spending, or maybe they are just too close to the gambling industry. The over $750 000 donation Labor received from the Australian Hotels Association in 2018 is clearly still buying special treatment. Perhaps it is because they are afraid of a negative campaign from the hotels association. We have seen the AHA default to a scare campaign the second they feel threatened by the prospect of gambling reform. Four years ago in Tasmania a similar campaign against Tasmanian Labor saw the Liberals retain government.
While it is extremely strange to be describing a Liberal government as an exemplar in gambling reform, that is exactly what I am about to do. Just last week Tasmania announced that it will be the first jurisdiction in all of Australia to introduce mandatory precommitment at all pokies venues in the state. The Tasmanian scheme will apply from December 2024—a full year before the Victorian one is implemented. The scheme will use a cashless card which will have a preset loss limit of $100 per day, $500 per month and $5000 per year. These can be lowered by players at any time. The new cashless card and precommitment system were recommended by the Tasmanian gambling regulator, who considered and dismissed facial recognition as a harm minimisation measure and strongly recommended mandatory precommitment as the best solution. To their credit, the Liberal government accepted these recommendations and have immediately moved to implement them. Unsurprisingly the Tasmania Hospitality Association labelled the move ‘Orwellian’ and ‘a slap in the face’, but the Liberal government appears to be standing firm, with the Deputy Premier, Michael Ferguson, saying:
I do expect a bit of noise around this issue, but we’re very committed to this. It will be a model for the rest of the country to follow.
Right now this government has the opportunity to do exactly the same. There is a real opportunity with this bill to go further and introduce world-first harm minimisation measures by mandating precommitment on all pokies in the state. The Greens have prepared amendments to extend the precommitment scheme in the bill to every gaming venue in the state, and I am happy for those amendments to be circulated now, please.
Greens amendments circulated by Dr RATNAM pursuant to standing orders.
Dr RATNAM: Our amendments would ensure that precommitment was mandatory on every single gaming machine in the state, not just those at the casino. If this government is prepared to acknowledge that a precommitment scheme would reduce gambling harm and that it is possible to implement one on gaming machines, then there is no rational reason why this should only be the case in one gaming venue in the state, the casino. This is a test for this government. Are they willing to put the people of Victoria first, do the right thing and take the opportunity right now in this bill, or will they cave in once again, defer to their mates in the gambling and hotel industries and only go halfway on harm minimisation?