Gambling reforms to be wound back

On the 20 November 2013, the Minister for Social Services, Kevin Andrews introduced the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 to the House of Representatives. Among a host of amendments to various social welfare, higher education and income support arrangements, the Bill proposes to significantly wind back national gambling reforms that were intended to address problem gambling associated with electronic gaming machines (EGMs), or pokies.

The National Gambling Reform Act 2012 will be renamed the National Gambling Measures Act, with a shift in emphasis to encouraging responsible gambling. When the Act was passed in November 2012, it established a national regulatory regime for EGMs which required that:
  • from 31 December 2014, new EGMs either manufactured in, or imported into, Australia be capable of supporting an approved precommitment system
  • by 31 December 2018, EGMs installed in venues be linked together as part of a state-wide or territory-wide precommitment system, and display electronic warning messages (smaller venues had an extended deadline) and
  • from 1 February 2014 Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) located in gaming venues have a $250 daily withdrawal limit.
Two levies would be imposed on venues—a Gaming Machine Regulation Levy (from January 2019) and a Supervisory Levy to be imposed after regulations were enacted. These were to fund the cost of administration and fund a national Regulator. While the Act specified that precommitment and player warnings be enabled on EGMs, it did not require that players must use these systems—they remained voluntary.

The Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 proposes that a raft of provisions from the Act be repealed. These include all provisions relating to precommitment systems, including abolishing requirements on manufacturers and venues to ensure EGMs are precommitment enabled; repealing provisions limiting ATM withdrawals; repealing provisions requiring dynamic warning messages to players be displayed; abolishing the proposed gambling Regulator, and the levies which were to support its functions; and removing references to a proposed trial of precommitment in the ACT and its proposed evaluation and related amendments. The provisions around the research role for the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) into problem gambling remain, although funding for this additional function is not addressed.

In place of the repealed provisions, the Bill proposes provisions that express the Abbott Government’s broad support for responsible gambling. This includes an explicit commitment to work with the states and territories, the gaming industry, academics and the community sector to develop and implement a voluntary precommitment scheme on gaming machines in venues nationally, within a realistic time period. Further, it commits the Government to work with the gaming industry and the states, to ensure all pokies are capable of supporting voluntary pre-commitment, and to do this within a realistic timetable.

Provisions around research have also been wound back—the proposed trial of mandatory precommitment in the ACT will no longer proceed or be evaluated, meaning that the evidence around the effectiveness of precommitment will remain reliant on trials of voluntary systems only. The most recent report into the voluntary precommitment trials in South Australia show that voluntary measures can provide some benefits for problem gamblers, as this Flagpost also explains.

In his Second Reading speech, Minister Andrews emphasised that the Bill reflected the Government’s promise to reduce bureaucracy and the duplication of functions between the Commonwealth and the states and territories. As gambling is largely regulated at the state and territory level, this measure is consistent with that commitment.

These amendments will no doubt disappoint those who supported the passage of the original gambling reform bill particularly Independent Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie. Although the National Gambling Reform Act 2012 ultimately fell short of his original goal to implement a mandatory precommitment scheme nationally, the member for Denison nevertheless expressed satisfaction that regulation of EGMs was finally being addressed at the national level. Those who advocated for even stricter controls on pokies, including mandatory precommitment and mandated limits on bet amounts will also be disappointed.

The shift in emphasis away from addressing pokie machine harms nationally, to encouraging responsible gambling may also prompt criticism. New research suggests that putting the onus on gamblers to ‘gamble responsibility’ can add to the stigma and may prevent them from seeking help. Further, unlike responsible drinking messages which include guidance on what constitutes risky drinking, gamblers have little information on what constitutes risky gambling.

The repeal of ATM withdrawal limits may attract the heaviest criticism as evidence suggests such limits can assist problem gamblers manage their spending, as this previous Flagpost explains. The removal of the requirement for dynamic player warnings may also be criticised as these were explicitly recommended by the Productivity Commission (Recommendation 8.2), as it regarded such warnings as being more effective than static signs in modifying risky player behaviour.

Meanwhile, those who advocated against gambling reform should be pleased at the Government’s prompt action, however, they should also be prepared for continued efforts from the Commonwealth, the states and advocates, to work towards the implementation of a national precommitment scheme. Victoria has recently introduced legislation to mandate voluntary precommitment on EGMs in Victorian venues from December 2015, following less successful legislative efforts in South Australia.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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