Howard Announces National Approach To Problem Gambling

The Prime Minister, John Howard, has announced the formation of a Ministerial Council on Gambling.

The government is to adopt a recommendation of the Productivity Commission aimed at achieving a national approach to problem gambling.

Text of statement by Prime Minister John Howard on problem gambling.

Excessive gambling blights the lives of thousands of Australians and their families every year.

Problem gambling has become a major social concern.

The challenge for all governments in Australia is to find a response which balances the undoubted right of individual Australians to gamble if they wish with the ongoing responsibility of governments for overall community welfare.

The regulation of gambling has traditionally been a State responsibility. It is not our desire to change this. The Commonwealth, however, does have a leadership role in coordinating a national response to problem gambling.

Importantly also, the Commonwealth has a direct responsibility in relation to the use of the internet for gambling. I am particularly concerned about the effect of a rapid expansion of internet gambling and the Government will be investigating the feasibility and consequences of banning internet gambling.

Today I have released the final report of the Productivity Commission on Australia’s gambling industries. A key recommendation of that report is the establishment of a ministerial council on gambling aimed at achieving a national approach to the challenge of problem gambling.

The Government will adopt that recommendation. I have written today to the Premiers and Chief Ministers proposing the establishment of a Ministerial Council on Gambling.

That council will report to the Council of Australian Governments. It will focus on stopping the further expansion of gambling in Australia, on the impacts of problem gambling on families and communities, on internet gambling and on consumer protection.

The Minister for Family and Community Services will represent the Commonwealth on the Council, with other Ministers participating on relevant issues.

The Productivity Commission report is the first comprehensive investigation of gambling in Australia and it is the first time we have had a complete picture not only of the economics and regulatory structure of the gambling industries, but also of the social consequences of the recent rapid expansion of gambling in this country.

I am particularly disturbed by the findings of the report about the extent and severity of problem gambling. The report found that around 290,000 Australians are problem gamblers and account for over $3 billion in losses annually.

This is disastrous not only for these problem gamblers, but also for the estimated 1.5 million people they directly affect as a result of bankruptcy, divorce, suicide and lost time at work.

I have been pleased to see that the publication of the draft of this report in July this year has already generated a great deal of concern about problem gambling and its effects on families and the community. State and Territory governments have announced a range of measures to address the uncontrolled expansion of gambling and improvements to services for problem gamblers.

We need, however, a national response to what is clearly a national problem. By working together with the industry and the community, the Commonwealth and the States and Territories can achieve the best economic and social outcomes for the Australian community.

It will be important for the gambling industry and communities themselves to work with governments in addressing the issues in the Commission’s report. I have therefore proposed that an expert advisory body to the Council be established with membership from community organisations and also from the gambling industry itself.

Internet gambling has the potential to dramatically increase the number of problem gamblers because it will be accessible to every household 24 hours a day.

I would envisage that this issue will be a major focus of the proposed Ministerial Council on Gambling and its advisory body. In addition the Government will be undertaking consultations with relevant industry and consumer groups and will also take account of the forthcoming report of the Senate Information Technology Committee’s inquiry into on-line gambling.

The Commonwealth Government will also undertake a range of measures to increase the priority given to the prevention and treatment of problem gambling within the Government’s own social policy programmes. These measures include new approaches to informing and helping Australians from particular groups with special needs, such as youth, veterans, Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and people from culturally diverse backgrounds.

Transcript of John Howard’s press conference on problem gambling.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well ladies and gentlemen, today I’m releasing the final report of the Productivity Commission into the gambling industry. And in responding to that report the Federal Government has as its main objective to strike a balance between on the one hand recognising the very understandable desire of Australians to gamble and recognising their undoubted right to do so, with the ongoing responsibility of the Federal Government and the State governments to address the community welfare aspects of problem gambling.

Gambling of course is part and parcel of the Australian way of life and it is not the desire of the Government to adopt a censorious or negatively prohibitive attitude towards the ordinary desire of Australians to indulge themselves in the pleasure and the recreation of gambling. But side by side with that there must be a recognition that excessive gambling blights the lives of tens of thousands of Australians and their families ever year. And the Productivity Commission report has crystallised the extent to which this now assumes the dimension of quite a significant social problem. And our desire is to strike that balance, to recognise the right of people to gamble, but at the same time to discharge the responsibilities of governments to tackle what has now become a very significant problem. And perhaps I can best highlight the dimension of that problem by quoting very briefly from the findings of the Productivity Commission report. And it says problem gamblers comprise 15% of regular non-lottery gamblers, and account for about $3.5 billion in expenditure annually ­ about one-third of the gambling industry’s market. They lose on average $12,000 a year compared with just under $650 a year for other gamblers. And the report goes on elsewhere to say that policy approaches for the gambling industries need to be directed at reducing the costs of problem gambling through harm minimisation and prevention measures while retaining as much of the benefit to recreational gamblers as possible.

And the Government finds itself very much in sympathy with that balanced goal and that balanced finding. We don’t want in any way to interfere with the recreational aspects of people pursuing gambling where it is clearly not a problem for them. But we do in cooperation and conjunction with the Sate governments, and with the gambling industry generally, we do have a responsibility at a national level to try and strike that balance and to try and address some of the difficulties that are posed for people who have become problem gamblers.

This is not an easy task and I don’t pretend for a moment that the Productivity Commission report has provided all of the answers, or what I’ve announced today, particularly the decision of the Government to propose a ministerial council to deal with gambling, comprised of representatives of the Commonwealth Government and the States. But it is I think a challenge that all governments around Australia will join the Commonwealth in trying to meet because we do recognise that we have a broader social responsibility beyond endorsing the undoubted right of Australians to engage in and derive pleasure from gambling.

Traditionally of course the regulation of gambling activities has been the responsibility of the Sates and Territories. We don’t have any particular desire to disturb that or to change that. We do however recognise that we do have a leadership role to coordinate a national response, and most specifically in relation to one aspect, that is gambling on the internet, the Commonwealth Government has a direct and very clear constitutional and legal responsibility. One of the first tasks of the Ministerial Council will be to examine the feasibility and the consequences of prohibiting gambling on the Internet. The capacity for gambling to proliferate and spread because of the use of the Internet only has to be stated to be obvious. The United States is presently considering two pieces of legislation, the American Congress, that will bring about such a prohibition in the United States. And various legislative and regulatory responses around the world are now being addressed by governments.

I’m not today announcing, nor am I foreshadowing that a decision to prohibit gambling on the Internet, what I’m announcing is that one of the first tasks of the Ministerial Council will be to examine the feasibility and the consequences.

I commend to all people who are concerned to achieve a balance in social policy a careful study of the Productivity Commission’s final report. The draft report that came out in July generated an enormous amount of interest. It unveiled a lot of material, some of which was perhaps I guess perceived by many Australians to be there, but we haven’t quite had the full detail and the full dimension until the report. And the final report represents not only a continuation of many of the findings of the draft report, but also a distillation with it of the responses to that draft report. And it represents the first really comprehensive analysis of the gambling industry in Australia. I think it’s a very balanced attempt to strike the right pitch between the rights of people to gamble, the recognition of its role as part of the social fabric of Australia, but also to recognise that those who have a problem do experience in many cases a total blighting of their lives. The analysis of the tendency to suicide, job loss, family breakdown, family deprivation, all of the other things that attend the lives of the almost 300,000 people identified by the report as being problem gamblers in Australia. I think it makes very interesting and very compelling reading.

So I release the report. I announce our initial response. I foreshadow what the Government will pursue in cooperation with the State and Territory governments of Australia, and endeavour in terms of the report to achieve a balanced response. I don’t predict that we’re going to make early gains. I do however find within the Australian community a belief that although gambling is part of our life and will and should remain so, that it has probably gone far enough and there should be attempts to help people who are suffering a problem from it, and there should also be attempts to curb any further expansion and proliferation of gambling facilities. And I look forward to the cooperation of State and Territory governments in dealing with that change. Any questions?

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you have mentioned here that there is to be a further range of measures in the press release [inaudible]….Can you just tell us something about that?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well I think the purpose of the point of that reference was to indicate that in all of the social welfare programs where we can incorporate further advice and education against the…in relation to the impact of problem gambling we’ll do so and we’ll do so in a way that that information filters through to different sections of the community which are highlighted at the bottom of that paragraph.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, one of the huge problems have been the proliferation of poker machines, particularly in New South Wales. Is there any kind of legislation down the track that might look at cutting back on the number….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well we don’t have the power to do that. And as I said, it remains principally the responsibility of the States. We have a role at a national level to coordinate a national response. We want to involve all of the State and Territory governments. We have particular responsibility in relation to the Internet. We have now provided the States of Australia with a taxation system that removes their major excuse for a continued reliance on gambling, and that is as a source of taxation revenue. Now over time as the GST comes in and provides a growing source of revenue for the States, we are answering that criticism that’s been made in the past. And it’s not a criticism that I’ve necessarily accepted. But once the GST is up and running the States will have a growing source of tax revenue and therefore there’ll be a greater capacity to reduce the dependence on gambling taxation.

I think the achievable goal ought to be for all governments to put a limit on the expansion of gambling facilities, and to try and help in different ways people who have become problem gamblers. If we can at least together do those two things over the next couple of years we will have achieved a lot.

JOURNALIST:

The Commissioner actually said that internet gaming provided a great opportunity for Australians [inaudible]. Do you think Australia will miss an opportunity if it limits internet gambling…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well that’s one of the things that needs to be taken into account. As I’ve said we’re not announcing an intention to do it. We’re announcing an intention to examine the feasibility and the consequences. I think there’ll be different views around the community. I think some of the territory governments will have some concerns, others will not have a concern, and we will follow what others are doing particularly in the United States.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, what’s going to be the role of industry…

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon.

JOURNALIST:

What’s going to be the role, if any, of the gambling industry?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well the gambling industry should feel that it will be part of helping governments find a sensible solution to the problem areas. They all have an interest in helping problem gamblers. They all have an interest in making sure that it remains first and foremost a recreational pursuit within the financial capacity of all of those who participate. And as far as I’m concerned I would want to enlist the aid and the understanding of people involved in the industry.

JOURNALIST:

So are you talking about with the council? I guess as the council looks as this issue you’ll be involving the industry….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that council would involve the industry I imagine. They wouldn’t be members of it because it’s a government, it’s a ministerial council. But we don’t set out to put ourselves at arms length from the industry. What we are saying to the gambling industry is there is a problem with a section of the community. Everyone knows that and most Australians are concerned about it. The impact on families and children, on the poor, on small business is very clear so far as problem gambling is concerned. And nobody can deny that and this report gives a very detailed analysis of that. So what we have got to do together is try and reduce the damage that is being done in that area whilst preserving the industry in a perfectly legitimate way and recognising the contribution it makes to the enjoyment of life of so many hundreds of thousands of Australians.

JOURNALIST:

Would you support the limit on the advertising and promotion of gambling, for example, or the running of education campaigns to specifically describe the odds….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I think anything that increases the volume of information available to people who gamble about the odds should be supported. I am always reluctant to support advertising, put bans on advertising of products which are legal although we have in our society a number of examples of where we allow substances to be sold but we put severe limits on their advertising. But they are the sort of compromises that I guess any democratic society makes but I would be open to examine that. But I am never attracted to too many restraints on the right of people to advertise their goods or services subject to community taste and subject, of course, to the information being accurate and also the information they are conveying perhaps more information about the odds than is currently the case.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, given that gambling is primarily a State responsibility has there been any [inaudible] reactions from….

PRIME MINISTER:

I beg your pardon, any what?

JOURNALIST:

Has there been any reaction from the States to…

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I haven’t spoken to them. I am writing to the Premiers and Chief Ministers today with my proposal about a ministerial council. But I don’t think any of them should be the least bit critical in their reaction to this. I mean, we are proposing a logical process for trying to achieve that balance. We are not coming in in a heavy-handed censorious way and saying you shall not do this or do that. We are recognising that people will gamble. It’s part of our life. But we are also recognising that for a small but nonetheless significant minority it’s devastating, it destroys their lives. But all of us have a responsibility to try and help and to find a solution or at least ameliorate the problem and that is basically what we are seeking out to do.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, you mentioned the problem of internet gambling but why is it intrinsically different, for example, to the problem of gambling over the telephone?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I guess the expansion, the capacity to expand and proliferate would be one reason why some might see it as intrinsically different. But I go back to what I said earlier, we haven’t made a decision on that but it’s something that we are putting on the table for examination. The point you make will obviously be in the minds of some.

JOURNALIST:

Do you have concerns about the way the States have handled their responsibilities in relation to gambling?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I want to engage the cooperation of the States and my starting point is to say to them: look, we have a clear problem with a section of the community, it’s our obligation as good governments concerned about the overall welfare of the community to try and deal with that problem and to reduce its incidence. And the best way to get the cooperation of people in relation to that is to adopt a cooperative, positive, conciliatory approach rather than a finger pointing admonishing approach.

JOURNALIST:

[Inaudible] financial relationship between the industry, is that a problem as far as you are concerned, the fact that they get a lot of income from the gambling industry….

PRIME MINISTER:

The States?

JOURNALIST:

Yeah, the States.

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that’s a factor for them to take into account but I would say earlier to you that one of the beaut things about the GST is that over time it will reduce the dependence of the States on other forms of taxation because it’s a growth tax.

JOURNALIST:

Do you still feel ashamed about the number of poker machines in Australia?

PRIME MINISTER:

Yes, I do.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, the 300,000 problem gamblers in Australia. Australians have always gambled from the time of colonisation. The only thing different now from the 1950s and [inaudible] is that back in the ‘50s you had to….

PRIME MINISTER:

It was harder to do it.

JOURNALIST:

It was so much more restricted. You now have….I spoke to a widow a couple of days ago whose husband had [inaudible]….pub on every corner with poker machines. Well, back in the ‘50s in the innocent days you couldn’t do that, you had to go and sneak around to the SP bookmaker. Surely this increase, the….of gamblers is simply a reflection of the growing access to gambling facilities?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, I mean, I don’t presume to be an expert on the “innocent days”.. But can I say that the point you make sounds common sense to me that part of the problem is the proliferation of gambling opportunities. And that is why I said a few minutes ago that if you could achieve two things, if you could put a limit on the expansion of facilities. I may have mentioned some time ago, days ago I had a proposal put to me that we should allow gambling on international flights and I said that the Government wouldn’t support that. Every day virtually proposals come forward for a new form. Perhaps we have reached a point where we have enough and at the very least if we can stop the proliferation of further opportunities and address particular personal and behavioural problems of those who can be classified as problem gamblers then you might make a modest but important contribution.

Now, I am not setting the high jump bar too high on this, it’s going to be very difficult. But what we are doing today for the first time is to recognise the Government does, at a federal level, the Commonwealth does have a leadership role. I hope all of the States irrespective of their political colour will involve themselves in this process.

JOURNALIST:

Are any extra funds earmarked at the federal level at this stage?

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, it’s too early to start talking about funds, just too early.

JOURNALIST:

Prime Minister, [inaudible] report at the Victorian University [inaudible]…

PRIME MINISTER:

About the pokies?

PRIME MINISTER:

The one that says that a certain amount a week has been lost? Yeah, I read a press report about it.

JOURNALIST:

…saying that income money that is coming out of that [inaudible] gambling. It seems to be saying that in the poorest parts of Australia [inaudible]….

PRIME MINISTER:

Well, that could well be the case. I have no doubt that small businesses in many of the less well off areas of Australia have suffered very badly as a result of gambling excesses.

Thank you.

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