Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National

PATRICIA KARVELAS, HOST: These days it's hard to watch sport or flick through social media without seeing an ad for a betting website. More than two thirds of us feel those gambling ads are too common, according to new data released by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. It also exposes the serious harm caused by gambling, showing almost half of all gamblers are at risk of serious addiction. Michelle Rowland is the Federal Communications Minister and joins us this morning. Minister, welcome to the program.


KARVELAS: Were you alarmed by these statistics?

ROWLAND: I think the scale and the rate of harms is one that's particularly concerning. One of the key findings is the rate of people experiencing gambling harm in Australia is estimated to have actually doubled from 0.6 per cent ten years ago to 1.23 per cent only a couple of years ago. That rate of growth is one that's concerning. And the findings also show that some three in four Australian adults spent money gambling in the past twelve months, but around half of those who gambled could be classified as at-risk of experiencing gambling harm. I think this research is very timely considering we have a committee at the moment looking into these very issues of advertising and the need to protect vulnerable Australians. It certainly will be fed into that process and one that the Government is looking at very closely.

KARVELAS: Does this provide evidence that there is now urgent reform needed?

ROWLAND: I think it is a useful piece of the evidence base. I think that this is coming at a time, again, when there are heightened community concerns and that's the reason why we're also, as a Government, looking very closely at credit card betting and the regulation of games which can contain gambling-like content, including simulated gambling. It's actually a policy area that goes across a number of portfolios, including Social Services, and in terms of payment systems, it goes across Treasury. We are taking a very holistic approach as a Government to these issues and I think being informed by a solid evidence base is very opportune at this time.

KARVELAS: Does this give you a mandate to restrict or even ban advertising for online gambling?

ROWLAND: I wouldn't pre-empt the findings of the inquiry that's going on at the moment. They are some of the very issues that the inquiry is looking into, including limiting children's exposure. The inquiry is looking across platforms, social media, sponsorship and branding, and I think that this will be a really important piece of work that's produced for the Government to consider. But also, the Government is very mindful that there has not been this kind of inquiry for many years in Australia and there is a broad community expectation of action. I do want to assure all your listeners that we are doing this in a methodical and evidence-based manner, but also we need to make sure that it's capable of implementation and ultimately has the outcomes that we all want – which is to minimise harm.

KARVELAS: Minister, before the last election, you received around $19,000 from online gambling company Sportsbet. After that, you declared you won't take any more donations from them. But how can Australians have confidence in your ability to regulate the industry? What's your answer to that? I've got lots of text messages this morning asking that very question. Can they rely on you to take a tough line on this industry?

ROWLAND: I believe I am demonstrating that right now, by implementing these and actually acting on these really important pieces of evidence. It's clear that we have an agenda to minimise harm and to keep Australians safe. That includes in relation to people who are vulnerable and at-risk of harm in this space. The entire premise here is about harm minimisation. We were an Opposition with a strong track record on harm minimisation. We've come into Government with a clear agenda in this area. We are actually doing more in our first year about tackling this problem, getting the right settings, getting the evidence and setting an agenda than the last Government had in its entire term.  I expect that this Government and myself as Minister will be judged on our record. It's very clear that we understand the community expects action in this area. I've made my position very clear in relation to those other matters, and I'm getting on with the job.

KARVELAS: Yeah, I mean, we can anticipate furious lobbying from this industry now, as you inquire and look towards legislation. How are you dealing with that lobbying?

ROWLAND: We are doing this in a very methodical manner and a consultative manner. And I would make clear, too, that part of this Government's evidence base will be this transparent inquiry that is currently going on. This is open to the public to make submissions, they have. It's also, of course, open to stakeholders to make submissions, which they have. This is all done in a very transparent way.

I'm also fulfilling my responsibilities under the National Consumer Protection Framework in conjunction with the Minister for Social Services. We actually have this week tougher restrictions on gambling advertising being implemented, as well as enhanced training. Now, this is a national consumer protection framework that was begun years ago, which wasn't progressed quickly enough and which even in the first year of this Government, we have picked up and we are executing. We will also have the BetStop system in place as soon as that testing is ready and is ready to be proclaimed. The regulator is currently going through that process, but we are absolutely getting on with the job of keeping Australians safe, including harm minimisation, when it comes to these very issues. I expect that myself and the Government will be judged on our delivery in this area.

KARVELAS: Minister, one of the key concerns and issues of the New South Wales state election that I'd like to talk to you about was pokies reform. The New Labor Premier in New South Wales took a different position to Dominic Perrottet, one that was described as softer. Would you encourage Chris Minns to commit to the full implementation of a cashless poker machine card?

ROWLAND: He went to the election with a clear policy in this area. People made their decision there. This is an area that is regulated under State law and I expect that he will hold true to his election commitments. And I also expect that as Premier he will be open and consultative about that process. He's also very committed to harm minimisation and he will ensure that what the community expects in terms of delivering on his commitments, he fulfils.

KARVELAS: Let's talk about the New South Wales election. If we look at that election, it was a resounding victory for Labor. You're a New South Wales MP. What swayed it in your party's favour?

ROWLAND: I think it came down to probably two factors. The first is there was certainly a sense that this was a tired Government, but I think that it was more nuanced than that. I think Chris Minns asked a very genuine question: “do you really think this Government's best days are ahead of them?”. And I think that prompted people to consider not only the then current Premier, but also everything that had gone on in the past and how their quality of life had progressed. I also think that there's something going on in the outer and growth suburbs of our metropolitan areas, but also our regional areas like around Monaro. There's something going on there where the electorate expects a certain level of services and good planning so that they can have confidence in the future. That they have the right health services, education, and that they have the infrastructure that they need. I think in these areas those electors felt let down after 12 years. I think he picked up on that by being very engaged, particularly in North-West and South-West Sydney.

I know that one of his first acts as coming to the Labor leadership, which wasn't even two years ago, was that Chris Minns spent a lot of time in Western Sydney. Even when we went into lockdown. He also spent a lot of time in Western Sydney doing things for the community, like packing hampers for people who were in isolation. He demonstrated that he was someone who was very in touch with those basic needs. Obviously, the challenge now is to deliver on those. We've got so many schools that are overflowing, there are some areas where people have moved in and don't even have schools, and we've got growth areas like the North-West which don't have a public hospital in the region. I think in all of those areas, by focusing on those key quality of life issues that are important to the residents in New South Wales every day, I think that that resonated strongly with those voters.

KARVELAS: Does the result give you more confidence in the outcome of the Aston byelection in Victoria next week.

ROWLAND: I don't take anything from that myself. My focus has, of course, been on New South Wales, but I think what it does demonstrate again is when you've got an agenda that is forward looking and positive and speaks to people's values, demonstrates that you've listened to them, then I think as basic as those principles sound, that is what resonates with people.

KARVELAS: So internally, there's a lot of chatter that perhaps Labor is doing better in Aston than has been reported. What's your view?

ROWLAND: I'm not aware of that, but I think it would be quite extraordinary for a Government to win a by-election like this off an opposition party not even a year into its first term. But that will be up to the voters of Aston to decide in a few days.

KARVELAS: Minister, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

ROWLAND: Pleasure.