Introduction

On Thursday 5 December, the Coalition Federal Government (the Federal Government) introduced the Social Services and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2013 (Cth) (theBill) into the Australian Parliament’s House of Representatives.  The House of Representatives has passed the Bill.

Importantly, for the gambling sector, the Bill proposes to amend, among other things, the national gambling laws.  The Bill contains provisions that, if enacted, will repeal many of the national gambling reforms (particularly the poker machine laws) that were passed by the former Gillard Government.  

For further information about the national gambling reforms, please see our Focus Paper “Gaming Machines and Pre-Commitment: National Gambling Reforms Become Law – National Gambling Reform Act 2012, National Gambling Reform (Related Matters) Act (No. 1) 2012 and National Gambling Reform (Related Matters) Act (No. 2) 2012.1   

How will the Bill amend Australian gambling law?

The changes to be made by the Bill reflect the first implementation of the Federal Government’s policies in relation to gambling, which is stated to be a “different approach to addressing problem gambling, reducing bureaucracy and the duplication of functions between the Australian Government and State and Territory Governments.”2

The Bill proposes to amend and repeal certain provisions in the National Gambling Reform Act 2012 (Cth) (the NGR Act) - the legislation, passed in November 2012 that was the former Labor government’s response to promises made to independent MP Andrew Wilkie in return for his support in the 2010 election.

Notably, the Bill will repeal provisions in the NGR Act relating to:

  • the position and functions of the National Gambling Regulator;
  • the supervisory and gaming machine regulation levies;
  • the daily limit on withdrawals from ATMs to $250;
  • the dynamic warning provisions;
  • the trial relating to mandatory pre-commitment provisions that was to be conducted in the ACT;
  • the requirements to refer certain matters to the Productivity Commission for review, reporting and recommendations; and
  • all compliance and enforcement provisions relating to the above.  

Pre-commitment systems and gaming machine technology

The Bill will also amend provisions in the NGR Act relating to pre-commitment systems, reflecting the Federal Government’s preference and support for a voluntary pre-commitment scheme as part of their policy “to assist all gamblers3, in contrast with the previously legislated mandatory pre-commitment scheme.   

Some of the more notable proposed amendments in respect of this issue include:

  • the inclusion of provisions which will reflect the Coalition Federal Government’s preference for the development and implementation of a voluntary pre-commitment scheme in venues nationally, in order to encourage responsible gambling by all gamblers;4
  • the inclusion of a new section setting out the Federal Government’s intention and obligation to work closely with the State and Territory Governments, the gaming industry, academics and the community to develop and implement a voluntary pre-commitment system nationally and to ensure that all gaming machines are capable of supporting the pre-commitment schemes, as well as a realistic timetable for implementing these measures;5 and
  • the inclusion of a new section setting out the Federal Government’s intention and obligation to work with the State and Territory Governments concerning the administration of the voluntary pre-commitment measures.6
Current Status of the Bill

The Bill has been passed in the House of Representatives. The Bill has been read for the first time in the Australian Senate and debate commenced on 12 December 2013, the last sitting day of the Australian Senate in the Parliamentary calendar for 2013.

Importantly, the Opposition has resolved to support the Federal Government’s proposals to repeal much of the NGR Act, despite being responsible for the National Gambling Reforms in the NGR Act. In her Second Reading Speech, Labor Senator Ursula Stephens stated that, while the Bill removes all of the “meaningful reforms” and measures contained within the NGR Act that would help problem gamblers, the Labor party will “need to revisit this issue to determine the best way forward, together with stakeholders across the community…7 This has been confirmed by the Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, who has stated that the Opposition will be working with the clubs and the gambling industry to address the issue.

Given that the Labor party has resolved to support the Federal Government’s proposals, the Bill is likely to be passed by the Australian Senate and come into effect as law. However, the time frame for implementation is not yet certain, as further debate on the Bill will not take place until Parliament resumes in February 2014.

Criticism from Anti-Gambling Advocates

The Bill and the position taken by both the Federal Government and the Opposition has been heavily criticised by anti-gambling advocates such as South Australian independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Greens Senator Richard Di Natale.  In particular, Senator Xenophon has condemned both major political parties and has expressed concern that the regulation of the poker machine industry will be left to the State and Territory governments, who are likely to be supportive of the poker machine industry. Significant criticism has also come from MP Andrew Wilkie, the driving force behind the original national gambling reforms which took place pursuant to the agreement Mr Wilkie made with the former Gillard Government in return for his support in the previous parliament.  Mr Wilkie has suggested the Federal Government’s preferred voluntary pre-commitment systems is a “completely worthless technology which would not be effective.8

Impact on the Gambling Industry

At this stage, the Federal Government’s focus appears to be on laws relating to terrestrial based poker machines.  Venue operators and gaming machine operators, manufacturers and sellers (among other stakeholders in the gambling industry), will need to ensure that they are aware of the voluntary pre-commitment scheme to be introduced by the Bill.  

It will be important for the gambling industry stakeholders to participate actively in discussions with the Federal Government in the development and implementation of the proposed voluntary pre-commitment scheme and the requirements expected of industry in respect of the systems required to implement the voluntary based pre-commitment scheme.  

However, despite the focus on terrestrial based poker machines, Prime Minister Abbott has also indicated that the Federal Government will consider the implementation of stronger restrictions on online gambling.  It will be therefore interesting to monitor whether the Federal Government proposes a similar overhaul of the regulatory regime in respect of online gambling.