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Labor's gambling ties holding back proper reform

Carol Bennett

17 May 2023

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton was right to put gambling, and more particularly sports gambling advertising, in the national spotlight in his budget reply speech to Parliament last week.

With Australians losing $25 billion to gambling every year - more than any other country - it is an issue that has profound financial, societal and health impacts for the country.

Gambling reform should be on the national political agenda and part of key political moments such as the federal budget.

Mr Dutton rightly states that the bombardment of gambling ads is taking the joy out of televised sports. And worse, it is changing the culture of our country in a bad way and normalising gambling at a young age.

His proposal to extend restrictions on gambling advertising to one hour before and after the game is better than the current restrictions that only ban adverts during a sporting event, but it won't solve the problem. More on this later.

What the budget reply speech highlights is that gambling reform seems to increasingly be led by the conservative side of politics rather than the ALP.

It is strange given that the areas where gambling hits hardest, particularly poker machines, are the poorer, heartland suburbs of the Australian Labor Party.

Regardless of whether Mr Dutton's proposal is political leadership or just a clever political wedge, it focuses attention on Labor's failure to seriously commit to long overdue gambling reforms.

Former NSW premier Dominic Perrottet offered leadership on gambling reform when he committed to implement a mandatory pre-commitment cashless gambling card.This was triggered by the smoking-gun evidence of the NSW Crime Commission that poker machines across the state were awash with billions of dollars in illicit money - both money laundering and the proceeds of crime.

Unfortunately, this evidence was not enough to get now Labor Premier Chris Minns to offer bipartisan support for the cashless card.

Leadership was also shown by the Tasmanian Liberal government, albeit with bispartisan support, in the introduction of a cashless gambling card. It was an extraordinary backflip on the party's opposition to ban poker machines in 2018.

The Liberal party appears to be ahead on gambling reform, and as Stephen Mayne has pointed out, the ALP has been responsible for a clear majority of the historical regulatory and political decisions "that unleashed Australia's gambling beast".

This includes the Northern Territory Labor government that presides over a low-taxing regime licensing at least 30 bookmaking and betting exchange outfits - many of whom are behind the tsunami of sports gambling advertising we have all now come to loathe.

The NSW branch of the Labor Party is directly invested in the Randwick Labor Club. As of 2021, it held net assets worth $45 million in the multi-venue, poker machine club.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese opened the Mercure Belconnen in February 2020, a $50 million four-star hotel that the Canberra Labor Club was able to build off the profits from its four different pokies venues.

The ALP must be one of the only major parties in the world that is relying on gambling revenue to fund its political operations. It creates an extraordinary conflict of interest for Labor governments that are then tasked with regulating the gambling industry.

But before we dismiss the ALP and praise Mr Dutton's proposed advertising restrictions, it is important to highlight that they are flawed. Put simply, the proposed restrictions will only lead to greater gambling advertisements at other times.

Only a total ban on advertising will work. We have learnt that lesson. When tighter restrictions on sports advertising by gambling companies were introduced in 2018, it led to a 50 per cent increase in the total volume of gambling ads on TV and radio.

There is no reason to treat gambling advertisements any differently to the way we have treated advertisements for other legal but potentially harmful products such as tobacco. Tobacco was a huge buyer of sports advertising. When tobacco advertising was banned years ago, the sporting codes and the media outlets that had relied on cigarette advertising all survived and thrived despite the changes.

There are some signs of hope for Labor. The Minns government recently introduced a bill to ban political donations from gambling companies and the federal government is taking the important step of banning gambling on credit.

There will also be an opportunity for federal Labor to lead reform when it responds to the recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry into online gambling. Labor MP Peta Murphy has excelled as chair of this important inquiry.

We are yet to see how strong the recommendations from this inquiry will be and what action the government will take.

The Albanese government must acknowledge that it carries some responsibility for the health and wellbeing of Australians, and that means accepting some level of responsibility for reducing the unacceptably high level of gambling harm.

The Albanese government should ban all sports gambling advertising, create a unit within the Department of Health and Aged Care to address gambling harm, and establish a properly resourced national regulator to properly regulate an industry that shows contempt for current regulations.

The gambling industry and those who benefit from it currently have a dominant role in setting national gambling policies. This is becoming increasingly untenable and will no longer be accepted by communities across Australia. And that may become an even bigger problem for the ALP.

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