Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:17): My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston. New South Wales and the Northern Territory have become the first jurisdictions to restart pokies. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced gaming venues could possibly be allowed to open as part of step 3 by July. Australians have saved $3 billion since the pokies have been shut, with many gamblers forced to go cold turkey with their pokies addictions. The money saved has been spent in other areas of the economy rather than being lost down poker machines. Advocates against gambling are concerned about significant health risks of restarting the pokies during such a vulnerable time. Does the government share these concerns that a resumption of pokies will lead to a rise in gambling related health and risks social harm?
Senator RUSTON (South Australia—Minister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:18): First and foremost, the government takes gambling harm that may be caused to Australians very, very seriously. We are certainly aware of the recent reports that people might be going back to their pre-COVID gambling habits, despite the social-distancing requirements that exist within gambling venues. We're also aware of reports from analytics consultancy AlphaBeta Advisors and the credit firm illion on changes to people's gambling habits during the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic. It is for this very reason—the protection of Australians from gambling—that the Australian government embarked on a program of reform within the gambling sector to put in place the National Consumer Protection Framework for Online Wagering. It's very much the centrepiece of Australia's gambling reforms, because we want to help make sure that consumers are protected no matter where they are in Australia. It also provides a framework that empowers Australians through the use of tools to make sure they control their own behaviours with their online gambling habits. We take very, very seriously making sure Australians have the tools to protect themselves. But what I would say, Senator Griff, is that state and territory governments have the primary responsibility for licensing and regulating the land-based gambling establishments to which you are largely referring in your primary question. Obviously as the federal government, and through many of our agreements and the relationships that we continue to have and which have probably been enhanced over recent times in our discussions with our state and territory counterparts, we are working together to make sure that, through this unprecedented time that we find ourselves in at the moment, we put in place protections to make sure we can assist Australians to get to the other side of this pandemic.
Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:20): Minister, the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 has triggered many mental health problems in our communities, particularly amongst at-risk gamblers. Last year, the Senate backed my motion asking the federal government to address gambling as a national public health issue, noting the links between gambling, family violence and mental ill health. Has the government given any further consideration to the motion that was passed by the Senate last year and, if not, why not?
Senator RUSTON (South Australia—Minister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:20): Thank you very much, Senator Griff. Of course, the government takes all the motions passed in this place very seriously. But two things have been very important in the delivery of your request and desire to make sure that greater assistance is put in place for people who find themselves with a gambling addiction. One has been the recognition by this government, through the COVID-19 pandemic, of the greater need for the assistance, support and financial resourcing of our mental health services, to make sure that those people who find themselves in a position where their mental health is in turn being impacted by how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted them have the resources and the support that they need.
The other thing that we have done is to provide a significant increase in the amount of money that is being made available to financial counselling services and to make sure that people are aware of where those services are available so that they can be assisted through this time.
Senator GRIFF (South Australia) (14:21): Minister, the current GST distribution—and I know that you may have to take this on notice—effectively penalises states which choose to take action against gambling interests by not recognising any change in their fiscal capacity. Will the government undertake to work with the national cabinet to ensure that states are not penalised for public health and social services initiatives which address gambling harm and reduce taxation revenue?
Senator RUSTON (South Australia—Minister for Families and Social Services and Manager of Government Business in the Senate) (14:22): Thank you very much, Senator Griff, and thank you very much for giving me the answer to my question during the question you were actually asking!
Of course matters in relation to GST are matters for the Treasurer and the finance minister, and I'm not going to seek to make any commentary about that. But what I would say, and reiterate, is that this government takes very seriously our responsibilities to work with all jurisdictions to make sure that people who are impacted by gambling related harm have the supports in place, first of all to assist them through the things we mentioned in the previous question—mental health—and also so that they can deal with their addictions and the harm they are potentially causing to themselves and to their families through their addiction.
We will continue to work with the states and territories, we will continue to work through the National Consumer Protection Framework for Online Wagering and we will continue to work through the national exclusion register to make sure that we continue to make advances in this area and continue to protect Australians who are at risk of gambling related harm.