Second Reading

Danny O’BRIEN (Gippsland South) (10:07): I am pleased to kick off on the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Repeal and Advisory Councils Bill 2024, which is a rather curious piece of legislation, if I may say, in many respects, and I will come to some of the detail of that as I go through my contribution today. The government has made the decision to repeal the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, and it effectively did that in the budget last year.

To go to a little bit of background, the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation was established in 2011 under the then Liberals and Nationals government by my colleague the member for Malvern, and its role was to undertake a number of things. It was to look at prevention of gambling harm and promotion of the risks of gambling harm and to undertake research in particular into gambling harm and how it can best be avoided. As the member for Malvern reminded me this morning, it was modelled on the VicHealth model, which was set up in the 1980s, as members would be aware, for a range of reasons but one of them being to ensure that the government of the day had access to alternative voices and that there was to at least some degree a bipartisan approach to health promotion and ill health prevention in Victoria. The VRGF was set up to effectively do the same sort of thing but with respect to gambling and prevention of gambling harm.

As I said, that has been a bipartisan position up until now. I think three members of Parliament have been on the VRGF since it was established, and it has done an admirable job in ensuring that there is promotion of the ills of letting gambling get control of your life, in undertaking research and in helping those, through particularly the Gambler’s Help program and its various subcontractors, who are experiencing gambling harm. Indeed the VRGF categorises gambling harm into seven forms, being financial harm; relationship disruption, conflict or breakdown; emotional or psychological distress; decrements to health, which is an interesting term – obviously impacts on your personal health; cultural harm; reduced work or study performance; and criminal activity. There is no doubt that there is significant harm caused by gambling in all forms in Victoria, whether that is through electronic gaming machines (EGM); punting on horse, dog or harness racing; sports betting, which has become an increasingly prevalent issue, particularly the blooming of online betting operating right around the country; or many other forms of gambling that can take hold of people’s lives.

I was pleased to be part of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee, as I have been for a number of years now. We did a review last year of a number of Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) reports into how the state manages gambling harm, and in that summary report of the report that PAEC produced there is some information on gambling harm that I think is interesting. It says:

A relationship between gambling and family violence has been established. Gambling can be both the impetus and the outcome of family violence. Similarly, there is a link between gambling and suicide, with a total of 184 gambling-related suicides occurring in Victoria between 2009 and 2016.

It goes on to say:

Gambling harm disproportionately affects those experiencing social and economic disadvantage, while culturally and linguistically diverse communities highlighted their unique vulnerabilities to gambling harm.

We had a number of different cultural groups come forward to that committee, and in particular I think the Australian Vietnamese Women’s Association gave some interesting evidence on the impact in that particular cultural group. The report goes on to say:

Gambling amongst young people is increasingly normalised.

We had a youth round table as part of that inquiry, and the youth round table participants shared some of their experiences. The report goes on to say:

The financial consequences of gambling can be substantial. Gambling player losses in Victoria totalled $7.5 billion in 2022–23. Losses from electronic gaming machines constitute the largest losses in Victoria but losses from online gambling are the fastest growing. The Victorian Government raised $2.5 billion from gambling taxes in 2022–23 and gambling tax revenue accounted for 7.6% of total revenue collected in the same year.

Those comments and statistics outline the significance of gambling harm in our community, but I would also add that the VRGF found in 2018–19 in a report that 0.7 per cent of adult Victorians suffered from a gambling disorder compared to 69 per cent of all Victorians participating in gambling. So the principle that has always guided me and I believe has guided the Liberals and Nationals is that we need to address issues with problem gambling and we need to minimise the harm that comes from gambling, but it is important to note that statistic of just 0.7 per cent of adult Victorians suffering from a gambling disorder, so it is a very small cohort. Most of us can go into a gaming venue, put 50 bucks in the machine, win, lose, draw, withdraw and get out and get on with our lives. Most of us can have a punt on the horses, whether it is spring carnival or whether it is others who get into it more seriously, and we can maintain our losses. But there is a very small cohort for whom gambling becomes an addiction, and it is certainly an issue that we need to be focusing our resources on.

So it was that the Liberals and Nationals were very proud to establish the VRGF in 2011. It was done for a number of reasons, as I said. It was to establish in particular a model similar to the VicHealth model. One of the issues that I have learned through the research on this particular legislation, though, of course, is that removing the research function into gambling and prevention of gambling into a statutory authority was a deliberate design of the VRGF, to take that research arm away from the department and away from the government of the day and give it an independent bent.

So VRGF funding is funnelled to multiple different researchers across the state and across the country and into different programs as to how we can prevent gambling harm. As I said, that was very deliberately done to ensure the independence of that research but also to avoid the perception of any influence, particularly from a department where it is making policy or from a government of the day that is making policy with respect to gaming.

So it is that the decision to abolish the VRGF raises some concerns for us. In particular, if I go back to the history, previously governments have funded the VRGF on a four-year cycle, so in the state budget last year when there was only one year’s funding provided for the VRGF our antenna was raised. I asked the Minister for Casino, Gaming and Liquor Regulation at the time whether the government was abolishing the VRGF, and she simply answered, ‘Well, that’s a matter for a future government decision.’ Clearly the decision had already been made at that stage and was confirmed a month or two later when the minister and the then Premier announced a full suite of measures, on 16 July, making a range of changes to gambling legislation and regulation in Victoria, including that the VRGF would be abolished.

What I am concerned about with that in particular is the justification for the abolition of the VRGF. We heard from the minister last week at PAEC that there has been considerable work put into – and we can see it in the second-reading speech – establishing a new model and that there has been lots of consultation with the sector, with the VRGF staff, with researchers and all that sort of thing. But generally when a government makes a decision to abolish an organisation or a statutory authority in particular, there is a review, there is an analysis of some description, of that or some catalyst for it to be abolished. An example in this space is the reform and the abolition of the VCGLR, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation. It was abolished in light of the Crown royal commission findings, which effectively found, if I can summarise, that it had been asleep at the wheel. So there was a very clear purpose for abolishing that commission and establishing the new Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission.

There has not been a similar case made for the abolition of the VRGF. There were no recommendations in the Crown royal commission about VRGF. There were no recommendations in the various VAGO reports that the VRGF had failed substantially and should be abolished or reformed. There were not even, in the review of the VAGO reports by PAEC that I mentioned earlier, any recommendations that suggested that VRGF should be abolished, although by the time its work was concluded on that report the decision had already been made. Whilst there were certainly recommendations from the Auditor-General and from PAEC about how the VRGF could do its job better, there was no recommendation to abolish it and there was no recommendation that the system was broken and the model was broken.

Last week in the Public Accounts and Estimates Committee estimates hearings I actually asked the minister. I asked on what advice or analysis that decision was made – that decision being the decision to abolish VRGF. I got a non-answer, I guess you could say. The minister responded:

As you can appreciate, the VRGF – and I really want to thank them for their work. It is an organisation that has been going for more than 12 years, but as they recognised themselves, it was originally designed to be a responsible gambling foundation, which was about providing those counselling services but also the education services and research. We have moved on in terms of how we are now looking at it and looking at it in a much more multidisciplinary way to deliver those wraparound support services.

So clearly nothing in that answer suggests there has been a review of the VRGF. I pushed the issue a bit. I said:

The question is: what advice or analysis was undertaken? Was there a review of the VRGF that indicated that it should be wound up?

The minister again responded:

There has been much work that has gone into that. It has been subject to extensive consultation with the sector, with industry and with the foundation itself.

But again the minister did not answer the question, and the question was: was a review actually undertaken? The answer is clearly no. This is one of the things that concern me in this legislation. The government has not made a case and indeed has not even attempted to make a case as to why the VRGF will be abolished.

At that point I would like to go into what this bill actually does, the bones of it. It is only quite a short bill, because it simply abolishes the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Act 2011 and makes some other amendments to send some roles to the VGCCC. In place of the VRGF the government says it will direct client-facing prevention functions, including Gambler’s Help, to the Department of Health. The justification for that is that it is on the basis that there are significant comorbidities with problem gambling and that they often come with mental health issues, with alcohol and drug issues and, as I mentioned earlier, with family violence. That is true. It will send gambling harm awareness and prevention programs to the VGCCC, the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission, and the policy research and evaluation functions of the VRGF will go to the Department of Justice and Community Safety (DJCS). That raises again significant concerns for me. This is effectively going back to the old model that we had before the VRGF, which led to the concerns and led to the VRGF being established.

I have had a read closely of course of the second-reading speech, and there are in fact seven times where the second-reading speech uses the words ‘integration’, ‘joined up’, ‘more integrated service’, ‘will enable better integration’, ‘improving service integration’, ‘a more holistic approach’ and ‘better coordinate services’. I put to you and to the house that going from one organisation that is responsible for all of those issues – that prevention of gambling harm, the provision of Gambler’s Help assistance to individuals, the promotion and the messaging more broadly to the community about the risk of gambling harm and those research functions that currently sit within VRGF – and sending them three ways, in no way to me and to the Liberals and Nationals suggests better integration of how we handle problem gambling.

In concert with the government’s failure to actually say or provide any evidence that the VRGF is not doing its job, that leads us to significant concerns. There are a number of these that I will now go through. I have mentioned that the government has not made the case that the VRGF has not been successful. I believe that sending these roles off in three different directions will lead to a haphazard and uncoordinated approach.

With respect to the Gambler’s Help and client-facing prevention functions being sent to the Department of Health, there are some concerns outside just what we are saying. Obviously, as the Shadow Minister for Casino, Gaming and Liquor Regulation I consulted widely with the industry, with experts and with those involved in non-government organisations trying to prevent gambling harm, and one comment I got back was from Mark Zirnsak from Uniting, who said that when those activities were previously in the Department of Health they were ‘neglected’ and may again ‘get lower priority’. That is the concern that I have. While it can be argued, as the government is arguing, that sending those health and prevention and Gambler’s Help activities to the Department of Health helps coordinate with other health issues, the reality is it is going into a department with a budget of something like $27 billion and a whole lot of problems that we already know about very widely in this state. We know that with respect to hospitals we are about to see a massive change in the way the government operates, and as a result I am very concerned that sending this activity to the Department of Health will again see it get neglected and not given the treatment that it deserves.

With respect to sending some of the roles to the VGCCC, gambling harm awareness and prevention programs will go to the VGCCC. The VGCCC is a regulator, and that is what it should be doing. The lesson that this chamber should have learned from the Crown royal commission is that a regulator has got to be focused on its job of being a regulator, whether that is of the casino, whether that is of EGM venues or of the wagering and betting system – all of those things the regulator should be focused on. It should not be focused on undertaking advertising campaigns.

The inconsistency of the argument that we are getting from the government is highlighted again in the discussion we had at PAEC last week on this issue when the government was asked about how the VGCCC will undertake its functions in doing that gambling harm prevention and promotion activity. The CEO Annette Kimmitt basically said to PAEC that we are inheriting a number of the programs, things like the Love the Game program, which has been running for some time through the VRGF, but they are going to develop a new five-year strategy. She said:

So we are going to be working together with Health –

as in the department –

with the department and the research arm of the department to develop – as soon as VRGF join us – a five-year strategy for transforming community sentiment …

She went on to say:

… we have got a great opportunity to work together with Health and with DJCS on devising a new five-year strategy with that fabulous funding that we have been given to do that.

If the VGCCC has been given this role separate to the Department of Health, and the government has made the decision to allocate it away from health and from the Department of Justice and Community Safety, why then is the organisation now starting to coordinate with them again? That would suggest that perhaps the system as it was was actually correct in the first place, because it was all held together in one statutory authority. I found that comment confusing in light of what the government is actually trying to do. On the one hand we are sending gambling harm prevention in three separate directions, and then one of those directions is coming back to the other two and saying, ‘Let’s work together.’ It is quite bizarre in that respect. We think particularly in light of the Crown royal commission that the VGCCC should be absolutely focused on regulation. It has given every indication that it is red-hot on regulating both the casino and other players in the market in Victoria, but we are concerned that it should maintain its focus as a regulator.

Sending the research function to the Department of Justice and Community Safety again raises a concern that I indicated earlier. One of the reasons that the VRGF was set up in the first place was to remove that perception, or reality, of influence over the research program by a department that is also the policymaker and by a government that is also the policymaker. That was highlighted again through our consultation on this bill. Monash University’s Dr Charles Livingstone, who also presented as a witness to the PAEC inquiry last year, said it is ‘a major concern’ that research may be bent to the ‘short-term policy interests of the department’. That I certainly agree with. That is, as I said, why the VRGF was set up in the first place, to ensure that research could operate with a bucket of money given to it by the government but at arm’s length from the government with bipartisan board members that could work on what are the really key things that need to be done without any influence from the department, without any influence from the government of the day. That is our other concern.

There are a couple more things that have raised our concern with this. The other parts of the bill are the abolition of the Responsible Gambling Ministerial Advisory Council, sometimes known as RGMAC, and the Liquor Control Advisory Council. These, I am told, have not met respectively since 2020 and 2021, but they are being abolished. They are statutory advisory bodies now, both under legislation, and they are both being abolished. The government quite openly says that they are not going to be replaced because the government wants to be flexible around stakeholder engagement to ensure it is fit for purpose for the times.

That could also be code for, ‘We’ll talk to who we want to talk to, and we won’t listen to the people that we don’t want to listen to.’ I think that the government just abolishing these organisations is consistent with what is happening in various other aspects of legislation in this Parliament at the moment, where a number of statutory advisory bodies are being abolished. One argument for that is flexibility. Another argument is, ‘We don’t want to listen to who we don’t want to listen to.’ That is a concern.

My final concern with this legislation is in respect to funding. When the bill was brought forward and the government announced the decision to give only one year’s funding to VRGF last year I did wonder whether this was in fact a financial decision. But we have seen from the budget that indeed the same amount of money – indeed a little bit more money than has been provided over four years in the past – has been allocated to these new roles, this new model that the government is establishing. I might say that the money is $165 million, allocated to the department of justice, which then somehow within the wheels of government will be reallocated to VGCCC and the Department of Health. Although the minister in PAEC last week gave a breakdown of how that will be reallocated, it is not clear to this chamber exactly how that occurs when the funding has been given to the Department of Justice and Community Safety.

Nonetheless the concern is that ultimately when the funding is not being given to a statutory authority it is going into departmental funds and will be at the whim of future departmental trimming here and there. So there is uncertainty as to whether there will be ongoing funding, as I said at the start. VRGF had always been funded in four-year blocks by both sides of politics until last year, and there is nothing in this bill or indeed in government announcements or policy announcements that would suggest that that will still be the case in four years time. My concern is that the roles become absorbed into the base funding for DJCS, for the Department of Health and potentially even for the VGCCC, and we lose firstly that transparency but particularly the prospect of the actual funding continuing. All of this raises the concern as to why we are doing this when there is no evidence that the VRGF has not been doing its job. There are concerns at least from our side as to how a new model being spread across three different organisations and departments will actually be better than having it focused in one integrated group, as it is now.

You do wonder whether perhaps this is simply a political angle, whether this is just a little bit of a political attempt by the government to trash the legacy of the former Liberals and Nationals government and remove something that we established in this space. There are hints about that. The minister’s second-reading speech says with respect to the justification for the historical structure that we have:

For example, the importance of engaging with people with lived and living experience was not considered when the Responsible Gambling Ministerial Advisory Council and Liquor Control Advisory Council were established.

Who said? Who said lived experience was not considered? That just seems to me to be a justification, and a fairly flimsy one, for abolishing those two advisory councils but also a broader question for the VRGF.

I think the fact that we are debating this legislation now also speaks to the arrogance of the government. The government has already made the decision to get rid of the VRGF. The action is in train to move staff within those three different agencies and departments that I mentioned. Funding has been allocated straight to the Department of Justice and Community Safety, but this legislation has not been passed by the Parliament and has not been approved by the people of Victoria. So I think that is very arrogant of the government to do so.

Not only the arrogance but the haphazard nature of all this I think is best exemplified by a couple of very minor matters – minor but perhaps important. I note the statement of compatibility that was tabled along with the second-reading speech for this legislation by the minister in fact calls this legislation the Gambling Legislation Amendment (Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Repeal and Other Matters) Bill 2024. Indeed when I sent this out to my colleagues that is the title I gave it because that was the piece of paper I had in front of me. Then when I opened the bill I found that actually it is called the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Repeal and Advisory Councils Bill 2024.

So the government has got the wrong title on the statement of compatibility that goes with this legislation, which goes to the point of: who is running this show? Really, who is running this show? We do not even have consistency in the title of the bill, and that makes me think that this has been thrown together – that a decision has been made to abolish the VRGF and then they have had to come up with a model after that.

I think I could go further, because as we know, this bill abolishes the VRGF and abolishes the Responsible Gambling Ministerial Advisory Council and the Liquor Control Advisory Council and yet the bill itself is called the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation Repeal and Advisory Councils Bill 2024. It is my submission to you that the word ‘repeal’ in fact should go after ‘advisory councils’, which are also being repealed. Look, they are minor issues, but I know when I looked around the other side there were some furrowed brows when I raised those issues, because the members opposite thought, ‘Oh, my God, what are we dealing with here? We can’t even get the names of the bill right.’

Colin Brooks interjected.

Danny O’BRIEN: The Minister for Development Victoria at the table says he was not listening. That probably highlights the point. The government has not really been paying attention.

In summary, there are broader reforms to come. The government, when it announced the abolishment of the VRGF, made some significant changes, and I will have a lot more to say about those in the future, but we still do not have, almost a year after the government announced those changes on 16 ‍July, a timeline for when those reforms will be introduced. I asked the minister last week whether she had one, and she could not give me an answer. Indeed the technical reference group to look at the changes to the electronic gaming machines has still not even met, so one wonders what the government is doing.

But as I said, we are concerned that the government has not made the case to abolish the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation. It has not argued adequately as to how sending problem gambling harm in three different directions will actually help the problem gambler. We can only assume that this is indeed a political decision, one perhaps driven by something internal, and we do not really know what it might be. But as a result the Liberals and Nationals will not be supporting this bill; indeed we will be opposing it. We do not think it delivers the response to gambling harm that we need here in this state.

Stay up-to-date

Subscribe to Danny’s regular newsletter to stay informed about issues relating to Gippsland South.