Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Repeal and Advisory Councils Bill 2024

30 May 2024

Today I rise to add my contribution to the debate on the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Repeal and Advisory Councils Bill 2024. I feel that in the country itself, in Australia, the conversation around gambling is starting to change. We have indeed been a country that likes to have punt, and gambling has been part of our culture, whether that be TattsLotto tickets, horse racing, casinos, betting on sport, and now we have got a culture around betting on our phones – betting on anything really. It is a culture that has shifted. But we are getting better at identifying those issues that we are seeing with problem gambling. We have those in our community who can gamble responsibly, but there are many in our community who cannot do that. I have heard some contributions about it being an addiction, and I certainly concur with those sorts of remarks. This is a health issue that we are now particularly dealing with in our communities, gambling.

When the conversations have changed and the evidence has changed, we in this place – I would probably like to confirm that it has been more this side of the chamber – have always been up for the debate and up for the reforms that are needed. If we have evidence in front of us and expert advice, regardless of what topic it is, we have a duty to listen, to look at that and to ask: ‘What can we do here in this place to better our community with our legislation and reforms?’ We have always been a party to do that. This is another example of that, where we are modernising and listening to the experts to make some reform.

The Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, established many years ago in 2012, was at the time a necessary step. We admit that. It was there to address that prevalence around problem gambling. However, as I have indicated, our understanding of gambling harm has matured, and so too must our strategies in addressing that.

Last year the Minister for Casino, Gaming and Liquor Regulation announced some of our most significant packages in gambling reforms. These reforms included mandatory carded play, precommitments, standardised closing times, reducing load-up limits and slowing the spin rates. At the time I remember speaking in this place about the amount of people that those reforms were really addressing. It was estimated that around half a million Victorians are experiencing gambling harm, and it may be related to their own gambling habits but it may also be from someone else’s gambling at their own cost – say, someone in their family. This cost is around $7 billion annually, and this is leading to significant financial distress, mental health concerns and relationship issues. The reforms that we were making were really to ensure that patrons had adequate protection when they sat down at an electronic gaming machine at their local hotel or club, and it was to assist those people with problem gambling. I have heard comments too today about that those electronic gaming machines being addictive; they are designed to be addictive. We know that some people can monitor themselves, but others cannot, and there are consequences and effects from that.

I will bring it back to my own electorate and my own area and region. It is pretty clear in terms of the amount of dollars spent in my region of the electorate of Bellarine, which covers the Geelong and the Borough of Queenscliffe local government areas. In April this year the amount lost by players from just over 1300 gaming machines was $10,944,874.20. In March of the same year it had nearly reached $12 million. These are absolutely large numbers. They seem ridiculous to me; it is incomprehensible. These figures are representing people that can gamble responsibly but also those people spending those dollars who are not – who are struggling to manage their gambling habits.

When the minister announced the reforms for this bill, the functions of the current Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation would be transferred to other parts of government. That focus will be more on preventing and reducing gambling harm across our communities, so put into other parts of the Victorian government departments. We need to take a public health response and approach to this.

Thanks in part to the foundation’s own research, we do have a clearer understanding now of the multifaceted nature of gambling harm. Gambling harm comes in various forms, and also it is very often interconnected in many ways. Families of problem gamblers will face financial problems. It can lead to those significant losses and family financial instability. Families may lose their homes, savings and other assets. There is also that emotional and psychological stress. When dealing with those financial instabilities, gamblers’ behaviours can cause anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. There are also trust issues with that, with repeated broken promises and that financial secrecy. Persistent issues in gambling can also lead to a breakdown of relationships. There are social implications: families that are dealing with gambling problems often withdraw from social activities and support networks due to that shame and the embarrassment or the lack of financial stability, and the stigma associated with that can lead to judgement and further isolation. And in extreme cases problem gamblers can resort to illegal activities, such as theft and fraud.

It is important to note that a 2017 study commissioned by the foundation found that up to 30 per cent of people presenting to primary care, alcohol and other drugs and mental health services were also experiencing problems with gambling. The replacement of this foundation with a new model of gambling harm prevention and response is focused on improving those services and integrating referral pathways across our social service system. This focus is grounded in our best practice as well as findings from major inquiries, including the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System and the recommendations that came out of the Royal Commission into Family Violence.

I have just heard today, from sitting here for a few minutes, the other side’s confusion, maybe, around this bill and the removal of this foundation. Like I said before, it is really about modernising it after we had our expert advice provided to us. As a government, we must modernise and be responsive to that. The Victorian Auditor-General, though, also had a report, Reducing the Harm Caused by Gambling, and it was on the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. This report concluded that:

The Foundation does not know whether its prevention and treatment programs are effectively reducing the severity of gambling harm.

While the Foundation may help some people through its programs, it does not understand their broader impact. This is because the Foundation lacks an outcome-based framework to develop programs and measure their results.

In addition, while the Foundation funds research and program evaluation, it does not always use this evidence to improve program design and service delivery.

Maybe the other side might be able to get that report out and have a look at that. I can encourage them to read that report to understand the reasoning behind this bill. These reforms have also been supported by others who have worked in this space, including the Alliance for Gambling Reform, who said:

We welcome the fact the budget – $165m over four years is unchanged, and the functions of the disbanded … Foundation … will … reflect more of a ‘whole of government’ approach …

This is the reason why we have this bill in front of us today as well. Our government’s new model of prevention and response therefore will be in several departments: the Department of Health and the Department of Justice and Community Safety as well. By adopting this bill, we are really taking a decisive step towards that more integrated, effective and compassionate approach to reducing gambling harm, and together we can support those that are affected by this to build a healthier and safer Victoria for all. I thank the minister for her work on this reform, and I am proud that we have a government that is ready and willing to make these reforms to help our most vulnerable.