Speech: National RSL & Services Clubs Conference 2016

12 April 2016

The Hon Alan Tudge MP

Minister for Human Services


Thank you for inviting me to speak today.

RSL and Services Clubs are an important part of our community.

They are steeped in the traditions of the ANZAC spirit which are central to Australian society.

There are about 1,500 sub-branches across the country demonstrating the important and influential position the RSL is in to assist in commemorating our nation's wartime service; and learning from the experiences of our servicemen and women returning home.

You are a multi-billion dollar industry employing thousands, with many more volunteers.

Your venues provide an important place for our current and ex-service personnel and their families to gather, and share stories over a meal and drink, and with ANZAC day approaching, a game of two-up.

You play a significant role in representing, advocating and caring for our veterans and their families, as well as providing access to programs that address social, health and aged care issues.

This includes domestic violence programs by clubs in places like Griffith and Ballina and the Walking Wounded program, which has provided support for the Australian soldiers returning from Afghanistan, and the families of over 40 soldiers who lost their lives whilst serving our nation.

The RSL is also a vital partner in publicising the Government's comprehensive range of mental health services - including counselling, post-traumatic stress disorder programs and online mental health information and support for our veterans.

In 2014-15 the Veterans and Veterans' Families Counselling Service delivered 92,861 counselling sessions to 14,627 clients across Australia, as well as group programs, intake services and a 24/7 crisis line with the RSL playing an important role in identifying clients.

This shows that RSL clubs are an important part of the fabric of Australian society and are active community participants.

However your important work is, in part, funded through gambling activities, which brings with it challenges and responsibilities.

In venue gambling

Gambling is a pastime, with many people enjoying the occasional punt on the races, or flutter on the pokies.

The gambling industry makes an important contribution to the economy employing over 150,000 people across Australia.

The Commonwealth Government recognises that, while most people gamble responsibly, gambling is a major social problem for some Australians.

As you would be aware, up to 500,000 Australians are at risk of becoming, or are, problem gamblers, and this has flow on impacts to the community, where the social costs are estimated to be at least $4.7 billion a year.

Around 55% of gambling revenue in Australia is from poker machines, and at the pointy end, problem gamblers can lose around $21,000 a year playing the pokies.

The Government set out our gambling platform at the last election based on the premise that state and territory governments have the primary regulatory responsibility for in-venue gambling in Australia.

We also removed mandatory pre-commitment requirements and stopped a related trial in the Australian Capital Territory.

Mandatory pre-commitment, where players are required to set a limit, is something the Coalition rejects, as it essentially requires a licence to gamble.

We are of the view that punters do not necessarily need to register themselves to put a couple of dollars in a machine, and we don't want to create this additional burden for them or the industry.

We of course take gambling problems very seriously, and put considerable funds into financial counsellors to support people with problem gambling, as well as into gambling research.

1 in 6 people who play the pokies regularly have a problem, and with only 15% of problem gamblers seeking help, your venues have an important role to play in minimising the sometimes harmful impacts from gambling.

We want to encourage responsible gambling by all gamblers while helping those who are experiencing harm.

The Government understands that we need both preventative measures that are available and useful for all gamblers and treatment options to assist those experiencing harm.

That is why we support a range of sensible consumer protections, including venue-based voluntary pre-commitment, as well as more and better targeted counselling and support services, more effective self‑exclusion schemes, banning lines of credit, and a strong and safer online environment.

I note that Clubs are committed to responsible gambling and already have in place many of the measures I have mentioned.

I also appreciate that you invest your time and energy in assisting the Commonwealth through trialling dynamic warning messages and in various trials of voluntary pre-commitment.

We are interested in working with RSL Clubs and other industry representatives, state and territory governments and other key stakeholders to ensure that practical solutions are implemented that will reduce problem gambling.

But we are not proposing a Commonwealth take-over of pokies, and our objective is to assist with the development of standards across gambling platforms.

Illegal Offshore Wagering Review

Many of you would be aware that in September last year, Scott Morrison, the former Minister for Social Services, asked Barry O'Farrell to conduct a Review of the Impact of Illegal Offshore Wagering.

This reflected our election commitment for a stronger online gambling environment and other consumer protection measures.

It also reflected a general concern that large amounts of money were being gambled offshore on illegal sites. This potentially creates at least 3 problems.

First, it creates greater risk for consumers because legal protections are not in place and standard consumer protections are often absent with the offshore sites.

Second, there is less tax revenue for governments, and less product and other fees for racing and the sports industry. Of course, it leads to fewer Australian jobs.

And third, there is the potential for greater sports integrity problems, as sports integrity bodies do not have access to relevant betting and transaction information. In the ideal world, they would have visibility over every bet made on their sports.

The size of the problem is actually difficult to measure, as there is no 1 authoritative data set that measures the amount gambled offshore.

Global Betting and Gaming Consultants (GBGC), a betting consulting firm, estimate the amount of money gambled offshore on illegal sites is $64 million and has declined by 70% since 2004.

On the other hand, H2 Gambling Capital, another consultancy, suggests the offshore wagering figure is $400 million and will reach $910 million by 2020 on the current trajectory.

Regardless of which figure is right, the problem is not insignificant, and if the Government can minimise it through our policies, then we should. This is what Mr O'Farrell has advised us on.

What we do know more clearly, is that the online gambling environment is already large - about $1.4 billion per annum - and is the fastest growing gambling segment, expanding at a rate of 15% each year.

This is due to the technological advances, particularly the ubiquity of smart phones, in concert with aggressive marketing campaigns by the licensed online wagering companies.

Today, there are about 800,000 active accounts, although the number of people wagering regularly would be much smaller than that as the average number of accounts is about 2.2 per person.

Many bet online rather than in your venues because of convenience, in the same way people are now purchasing clothes or other products online rather than go to Myer or David Jones. This is a trend which is not going to slow down. The digital revolution is happening in almost every industry and the pace of change is just getting faster. The gambling industry is no different.

This has big implications for your clubs given their reliance on gambling revenue from in-venue machines.

Gaming revenue has underpinned RSLs and Services Clubs for a long time, and the proliferation of online gambling could significantly impact RSLs.

I am conscious that Federal Government policy impacts the pace of growth in the online world.

For example, under the Commonwealth's Interactive Gambling Act, online wagering companies are prohibited from offering in-play bets on their mobile devices. As you would expect, these companies are lobbying for these restriction to be relaxed as part of our response to the O'Farrell Review. Their argument is that people bet offshore in part because of the ability of illegal offshore wagering companies to offer gambling products that are restricted in Australia.

We have heard this argument, and we have also heard the arguments from the RSLs, Clubs and other industries that there are alternative ways to minimise the amount bet on illegal offshore sites. There is a view put by many that clarifying the law would be a very good first step, as it is seen as ambiguous by some providers as to whether the law actually prohibits unlicensed offshore companies from accepting bets from Australians.

The trend towards online gambling is also different from the digitisation trends in other industries in the harm that can be caused in the online gambling space.

Whether a person buys their shoes at Myer or online has no impact on the consumer's well-being. Whereas some evidence suggests that the risks of gambling online are greater than the risks of gambling in-venue.

Some researchers put the rate of problem gambling for online gamblers at 2.7% compared to 0.9% for all gamblers.

Additionally the increased use of the internet and mobile phone technology means that people can bet anywhere, anytime. Online wagering providers have the ability target individual gamblers with offers and inducements to bet.

A couple of years ago, I assisted an unemployed constituent of mine who effectively mortgaged his house over a weekend without leaving his living room, having been provided $80,000 in credit from an online wagering company.

Problem gambling in the online space is real, as it is with pokies at venues. But at least in venues, staff can advise a person to get help if they look like they are in trouble.

Having stronger consumer protections for online gamblers was raised by many stakeholders during the O'Farrell Review's consultations. Even the world's biggest online bookmaker, Bet365, said in its public submission that "Australia's responsible gambling standards are inconsistent and fall a long way behind international best practice".

The Turnbull Government wants to ensure that our consumer protection standards are strong and effective.

We will be announcing the full response to the O'Farrell Review within the next few weeks and are very cognisant of the issues the RSLs and Clubs have raised. The aim of the Review was to get a good evidence base for decision making and I am confident that our response will achieve the right balance.

I note that you are having a panel discussion later today on interactive gambling and I would be happy to hear of the outcome of that discussion.

Thank you again for the invitation to be here today. Thank you again for the contribution that RSL Clubs make across Australian society.

All the best for the rest of the conference.