KIERAN GILBERT: Tony Abbott has all but confirmed that the Andrew Wilkie-led poker machine reforms being pursued by the Gillard Government will be gone of the Coalition wins the next election. Mr Abbott did this last night, addressing a clubs rally at the Campbelltown RSL in Sydney’s west.
TONY ABBOTT: I do know that freedom and choice are important to my party room. I also know that anything that smacks of the nanny state will not be welcomed by my party room so, when this legislation comes before the Parliament, I predict that we will oppose it and, if this legislation is passed by the Parliament and if we then subsequently form a Government, I predict we will rescind it. That’s what I predict. [cheers and applause]
KIERAN GILBERT:  With me now, from Sydney, Labor MP Deb O’Neill and in Adelaide we have Liberal frontbencher Senator Simon Birmingham. Good morning to you both and welcome to the program.
DEB O’NEILL: Morning, Kieran.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Morning, Kieran.
DEB O’NEILL: Morning, Simon.
KIERAN GILBERT: You both heard the warm reception for Tony Abbott at the Campbelltown RSL Club. Not so for Laurie Ferguson, the Labor MP, Member for Werriwa…
KIERAN GILBERT: Deb, you have a number of clubs in your part of the world on the [New South Wales] Central Coast. What’s the feedback like there?
DEB O’NEILL: Well, that’s very interesting. I think people are starting to figure out that when these sorts of issues come to families it’s not an individual issue. You know, we know that for one problem gambler seven people are affected and if that’s a father that means that there’s food not on the table and whether you’re in Campbelltown which is an area where I actually grew up and went to high school, whether you’re on the Central Coast where I live now, it’s not a good thing to have families where gambling is at the heart of problems that they have to face and I think Australians and certainly people in New South Wales are seeing the damage that this does in our local communities. 88 per cent of us go and put a dollar in and never want to bet more than a dollar and that’s still going to be able to happen without any problem so there’s a lot of fear mongering and alarm going on. Tony Abbott’s got that strategy, Clubs New South Wales, Clubs Australia seem to have the same strategy. The reality is we have to deal with the fact that families in areas like mine who have problem gambling are losing $21,000 a year. You know, to set a limit at losing $120 an hour instead of $1200 an hour doesn’t seem like an outrageous thing to be doing. We know Tony’s going to say ‘no’ to everything. He’s going to continue to say ‘no’. The questions he should be answering are not whether he thinks he could provide proper counselling for people who have problems with gambling but how he’s going to respond to the $70 billion debt that he’s already clocked up for his proposed future Government.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, what do you make of some of the points there made by Deb O’Neill about, you know, the cost, the human cost, here and, you know, your South Australian counterpart Nick Xenophon… very strong on this issue as is Andrew Wilkie. You, by precluding this or rejecting it, will preclude support from those Independents, won’t you? Particularly Andrew Wilkie, who could be crucial in the next couple of months… six to 12 months.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, Kieran, you have to do what’s right and the Liberal Party believes that in this instance what’s right is to stand up for good policy and to oppose bad policy and Deb is perfectly right to highlight that there are concerns about a small number of Australians – a very small number – who are problem gamblers and we should absolutely target initiatives and support to assist them but this policy doesn’t do that. This is a blanket, ‘catch all’ policy that in fact does far more to disincentivise those recreational gamblers – those people who just punt a few dollars that they can easily afford – than it does those problem gamblers. Problem gamblers will go through the hassle of registering under this proposal. They will put big limits on their gambling and they will still bet way too much. Recreational gamblers will be confronted by a prospect of having to fill out paperwork, get a licence, see that it all looks too hard to have a punt of a few bucks and will just walk away but, of course, the impact that that will have, given that the recreational gamblers do make up the overwhelming majority of the population who use pokies in pubs and clubs throughout Australia… they’ll be the ones who, of course, walk away and the clubs and pubs and the social fabric of those pubs and clubs will really be hit, so this is just bad policy, it won’t achieve its desired goal. That’s why we oppose it. That’s why we’ll continue to oppose it and we should look and encourage focus on policies that actually tackle the problem here and the problem are those small number of problem gamblers and the best way to change their behaviour is through direct interventions with them.
KIERAN GILBERT: Deb O’Neill, what do you say about those suggestions we heard there from Senator Birmingham and also from Andrew Robb a little earlier that this is just another example of the nanny state at work – people being told how to bet, when to bet and how much?
DEB O’NEILL: Look, I think that we’ve heard from a Senator from South Australia where they don’t have the sort of problem that we have in New South Wales. It’s not as widespread there. They’ve already tackled this issue and they’ve done it through a legislative framework. The reality is, in New South Wales…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: But we don’t have pre-commitment here, Deb. If you think the SA model is so good…
DEB O’NEILL: Well, you have tackled this with good social policy and it’s very important that we do address the social reality. When I think of clubs I think of people gathered together doing healthy sustaining things. I don’t think about individuals locked at a machine for hours and hours and nobody wants to see our clubs totally overwhelmed just by gambling and poker machines so I think we really need to deal with the problem.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay. Well, let’s…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Kieran, if I can just make one really quick point here…
KIERAN GILBERT: Just quickly…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Deb has hit the nail on the head – this is fundamentally a state issue. It’s got nothing to do with the Federal Government. State Governments set laws on poker machines and that’s where it should lie.
KIERAN GILBERT: Alright. Let’s look at free trade now. The Prime Minister made some comments last night, trying to give the free trade agenda a little bit of a nudge along. She was at the Commonwealth Business Forum in Perth.
JULIA GILLARD: Tonight I pledge that the world’s least developed countries will have access to Australia’s market free of tariffs and quotas for 100 per cent of the goods they export to our country. [applause] That is, Australia will continue the strongest possible commitment to market access for the world’s poorest countries irrespective of the settlement of other issues in the Doha Round.
KIERAN GILBERT: The Prime Minister there with that announcement last night…
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, do you concede the Prime Minister has been showing leadership on these international matters – trade last night, the day before urging the Europeans to get their act together, the Prime Minister on the world stage and showing a bit of leadership from Australia?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, she’s over in Perth attending the CHOGM [Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting] meeting that we are hosting and I would hope that’s what the Prime Minister would be doing. Can I say in relation to the pledge – the clip we just saw – frankly, that’s one of the more meaningless statements I’ve seen, given that of course it’s a policy that’s been in place for eight years now. The Howard Government gave free trade access to the world’s poorest countries to Australia. It’s been in place for eight years. I didn’t realise there was any threat to it, but I’m pleased to hear the Prime Minister commits that we’ll keep doing what we’re already doing there, but in general Australia should be a global leader on free trade. There’s much to our advantage to push and to drive the free trade agenda right around the world. I’m pleased that the Prime Minister is as committed to that as the Howard Government was. She just needs to get some runs on the board. The Howard Government signed free trade agreements with Singapore, with Thailand, with the United States. The Rudd and Gillard Governments haven’t managed to seal a deal with any other country for free trade agreements and that’s their failure so we’re hearing lots of talk about free trade from them. Let’s see some delivery.
KIERAN GILBERT: We’re seeing, just on another issue… just to finish I want to talk about, linked in some ways to the economic discussion we had earlier, but the post-financial crisis baby boom that the [Australian] Bureau of Statistics has reported yesterday and its report shows the number of babies born in 2010 hit a record high, up on the previous year, and it seems… a fair bit of confidence about the Australian economy. Deb O’Neill, why, when there is all this confidence and prosperity, is the Government not getting any credit for it? It seems it’s just so appalling at conveying any of its positive messages.
KIERAN GILBERT: Senator Birmingham, the baby boom – you’ve had firsthand experience with that over the last year or so.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, look, pleased to have done my bit for the 2011 birth rate, Kieran, with lovely little Matilda at home, even if she did get me up in the middle of the night last night, but look, I think… that shouldn’t discourage anybody, of course, around the country from keeping the nation’s fertility rate up. In terms of why the Rudd-Gillard Governments haven’t got any of the credit for this, well I think the reality is that most Australians recognise that the economic fundamentals for Australia were put in place by the previous Government – the sound budget management, the building of surplus, the building of the Future Fund to insulate Australia for the future, the opening up of our trade arrangements particularly with China and with Asia and putting us in a position where actually we could ride through the storm of the GFC [global financial crisis] but they’re worried that this Government has mismanaged much of that and put us at peril with what happens in the future and, look, we have absolutely a clear vision…
KIERAN GILBERT: Doesn’t it belie the Coalition doom and gloom message about the economy – spending too much and so on? Obviously Australians are pretty comfortable with their lot at the moment in large part if you look at the ABS [Australian Bureau of Statistics] numbers from yesterday.
DEB O’NEILL: That’s because we kept them working through the global financial crisis and that’s because we’ve had an economic leadership from the Treasurer who’s made sure that we have an economy that kept flowing and we didn’t end up in recession. You know, if you’ve lost your job it’s impossible to think of the future.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: … and if you look at retail spending figures at present, if you look at savings figures at present, if you actually look, of course, at spending figures, this Government has created an accidental miracle. It has dramatically escalated the nation’s savings rate. It was never part of their policy objective but they’ve done it because people are fearful, so they may still be having babies but they are putting a lot more back in the pocket at present and not spending it because they’re worried about the future and so Australians do have those concerns.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, we’ve got to wrap. Deb O’Neill, Simon Birmingham – Senator Birmingham – thank you both for your time this morning. Appreciate it.
DEB O’NEILL: Thank you.