October 27, 2011  |  Second Reading

Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Bill 2011

I am pleased to make a contribution in regard to the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Bill 2011.

I want to start by setting some context around these matters. I will go back to 1998 to look at issues that were being raised some time ago and then look at where we have got to today.

In particular I refer to a submission of the Banyule Community Health Service, which is in my electorate. This is a very active organisation and it provides great community services. In talking about gambling and problem gambling services in particular, that service determined that the term ‘problem gambling’ referred to a situation where gambling in our society ‘gives rise to harm to the individual player, and/or his family, and extends into the community’. The scope of the research of that service went back to the late 1990s and included the findings that many of its clients were middle-aged, around 38 years old — I am not quite sure if that is middle-aged; they were divided fairly evenly between males, at 54 per cent, and females, at 46 per cent; and around one-quarter of the clients were born overseas.

The service found that in the northern suburbs some 48 per cent of its clients had incomes below $20 000. A further 30 per cent had incomes between $20 000 and $40 000. This compares with the finding that only 2 per cent of the northern suburbs population that earnt above $60 000 was attending the service in relation to problem gambling. That was the situation going back to the mid to late 1990s. What has changed since that time that relates to these problem gambling services, which the government seeks to address through the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Bill 2011?

I turn to more recent work that was done by the local council in my electorate, the Banyule City Council. When I was a councillor there we adopted an electronic gaming machine policy and plan.

From my perspective it was about how we could advocate to ensure that problem gambling matters were addressed in the northern suburbs, which I represent, particularly in the Banyule area, which is a local government area (LGA) that is completely encompassed by my electorate of Ivanhoe. Some of the reports we had at that time included problems raised by people in my electorate, and the government will need to address those through the work of the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation.

In its electronic gaming machine policy and plan, which was endorsed in May 2008, the Banyule City Council reflected that it had some 650 electronic gaming machines in 11 venues across the municipality. That was the equivalent of about seven machines per 1000 adults, which was above the state average at that time.

The council found that in excess of $60 million was lost by adults using electronic gaming machines located within the Banyule LGA; that is essentially $60 million coming out of the community of the Ivanhoe electorate through losses on gaming machines. That is the equivalent of something like $650 per adult. That is the sort of revenue that is coming out of the northern suburbs in my electorate of Ivanhoe. These are the sorts of resources that people are losing and which are causing a lot of problem gambling issues. These are the sorts of issues that will go to the heart of what needs to be addressed through the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation when we set out some of the ideals and aspirations that the government has suggested it will seek to address.

My concerns in relation to the bill are around the way in which it seeks to address problem gambling issues, which, as I have outlined, have drawn significant revenue out of the northern suburbs and the people in my electorate. My concerns also relate to the composition of the board, which obviously will drive these changes and reforms. In clause 9 of the bill it is noted that the board of the foundation will consist of between 7 and 11 members. It is also noted in clause 9 that elected members will not be eligible to be appointed as chairperson and deputy chairperson of the board and that between 4 and 8 members of the board will be appointed by the Governor in Council on the recommendation of the minister. What is clear from that arrangement is that potentially 11 members of the board of this foundation will be appointed by the minister and that 10 of those members will be appointed directly either as government members or by the minister of the current government. Potentially one of the 11 members of the board of this foundation may not be a government appointment. I think that leaves the door open, and we should be concerned about what agenda the foundation is running and just how independent its role will be.

I note that clause 12 provides that members of the board can be removed from office by the Governor in Council, so the government can remove members of the board. It appoints the 11 members, but in particular it has complete say over 10 of the 11 appointments. There is no indication that anyone from problem gambling services in the northern suburbs would be appointed. There are people in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne who represent significant numbers of people there who have problem gambling issues. I wonder if they are going to be represented on this foundation, given that 10 of the 11 appointees are essentially of the government’s and of the minister’s choosing.

I note that the appointment of the position of CEO is also on the recommendation of the minister. That is pointed out in clause 17. The explanatory memorandum states that clause 23:

provides the minister with the power to direct the foundation in writing in relation to the objectives and functions of the foundation, and that the foundation must comply with the direction.

Clause 24 provides that the annual business plan of the foundation must be done in consultation with the minister. So the minister would essentially approve the work plan for the foundation, appoint all 11 members and have sole discretion over the appointment of 10 of those 11 members.

Clause 24 provides that the annual business plan must, at minimum, include — given that it requires the approval of the minister — all of the foundation’s objectives and priorities, as determined by the board, under the approval of the minister.

The foundation’s plan for what it intends to do over the next financial year needs to be approved by the minister and needs to include — to quote from the explanatory memorandum, clause 24 — ‘any other matters that the minister requires in writing’.

So matters that might be raised by members of the community or by problem gambling advocacy groups who would like to see particular matters addressed cannot be taken directly to the foundation. They have to take them to the minister, because it is the minister who will determine what matters the foundation will consider either directly or through the approval of the foundation’s business plan. So what will be the arrangements allowing the one potential member of the opposition on the foundation to have a concerted role? How could people from the northern or western suburbs of Melbourne have a role in the foundation — that is, people who work hard on problem gambling services and advocacy?

Could they be involved in the creation of the foundation’s work plan, objectives or priorities or its financial arrangements and its plans for what it intends to do?

These are some of the concerns of the opposition in relation to how there is going to be community confidence in the role and work of the foundation. It is not as simple as saying that we will have a joint sitting of Parliament and that that will somehow mirror the work VicHealth does. VicHealth’s studies, its publications, are all works that are made public. They are made available to all political parties and all community organisations, but we have made it very clear that under this foundation none of the material, none of the research information and none of the work that it will undertake — which will only be work undertaken under the approval of the minister — will be made available to anyone but the minister.

The foundation is entirely reliant on the minister of the day. It reflects poorly on the government’s view of VicHealth that it feels it can somehow create a veneer of credibility for this foundation by aligning it with a very credible organisation such as VicHealth. The only area in which there is any similarity between the proposed foundation and VicHealth is that a joint sitting of Parliament is required for the opposition — the Labor Party — to appoint 1 of the 11 representatives so that it has some say in representing the communities of the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne that are particularly affected by problem gambling. These are clearly concerns that need to be addressed by the government.

The government needs to outline how it will ensure that there will be an open and transparent process so that the work and the research of this foundation is made available to the community, so that we have some say in setting the agenda, work plan and resources that will be required to investigate issues that affect problem gamblers in the northern and western suburbs of Melbourne, so that the groups which are already working very hard to provide those advocacy services will not have their budgets slashed because all the resources are going to be tied up in a foundation which is going to be largely spoken for, appointed by, its work plan and budget and 10 out of its 11 members determined by a minister in the Baillieu government.