DAVID LIPSON:  It’s finals week this week but today’s titans’ clash is happening off the football pitch. The battle over Andrew Wilkie’s pokie reforms has intensified after several AFL [Australian Football League] club presidents slammed the mandatory pre-commitment technology. …
ANTHONY BALL, Clubs Australia Executive Director: Millions of supporters, millions of players, kids and families will suffer if this experimental technology comes into being.
DAVID LIPSON: Andrew Wilkie has a political gun, if you like, at Julia Gillard’s head, threatening to drop support for the Government if the reforms aren’t locked in by the end of next year. … Julia Gillard’s chances of getting these reforms through Parliament at the moment don’t look very good but the Government remains committed. … Joining me here in Canberra over the next half hour to discuss this and the other political issues of the day, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change Mark Dreyfus – thanks for your time – and Shadow Parliamentary Secretary Simon Birmingham, a Liberal Senator – thanks for your time as well.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Thanks, David. G’day, Mark.
DAVID LIPSON:  Simon Birmingham, why is the Coalition currently opposed to mandatory pre-commitment technology?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM: Well, David, let’s understand there’s only one Member of the House of Representatives who’s actually been passionately advocating this. The Government jumped onboard purely because they needed the deal with Mr Wilkie and that is the only reason the Labor Party is even pretending to support this and we know, from reports, that publicly there are people like Mike Kelly and Janelle Saffin who are dead-set against this – Labor MPs – and reportedly up to 25 who are prepared to oppose it when it comes to the Labor Caucus, so there’s a vast opposition to this, not just from the Coalition, not just from the AFL or the NRL [National Rugby League], but also within Labor’s own ranks.
Now, why? Because there’s no guarantees it’ll work, because it is not just an income deterrent or loss of income for these clubs in question but it’s also an enormous expense for all of the clubs and businesses around Australia to make this change for a technology and a change that is not proven to work. In fact, the pre-commitments we’re talking about will allow somebody to walk in and say ‘I’ll happily commit to gamble away a million dollars’. Well, that doesn’t address the issue for problem gamblers. It just puts a huge impost on the clubs and the businesses who have to apply this policy.
DAVID LIPSON:  But isn’t one of the issues for problem gamblers that they end up gambling more than they plan to when they walked into a club or a pub or the like?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  And that’s why a voluntary pre-commitment scheme can work just fine for those who actually want to take the step. Those who want to control their gambling can control their gambling under a voluntary scheme. A mandatory scheme, though, will just see those who don’t want the help subvert it, so it’ll be pointless for them, will still only cover those who are willing to acknowledge they have a problem and need that help, and that’s where the attitude’s got to go, to focus on the people who you can actually help, not apply what is a vast, bureaucratic, expensive solution that really won’t work in many instances.
DAVID LIPSON:  We heard Clubs Australia there saying that millions of families will suffer as a result of this reform. Is that a claim that you would back? How would millions of families suffer?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Well, look, clearly there will be vast expenses in applying this reform and clearly many of Australia’s clubs, that are patronised by millions of Australian families, will find they have to put up the costs of other areas of their operation to subsidise for the loss of income from their pokies businesses, so there will be a flow through effect right across the community, but I think we need to dwell on whether or not this is actually good policy or bad policy. Now, good policy would be something that is efficient to implement and will actually make a difference. This will not be efficient to implement and it will not make a difference to those problem gamblers who will always try to subvert the system.
MARK DREYFUS: We want to pursue mandatory pre-commitment because we think it will work and we think we have to do something about what is a very serious social problem. It’s really important that we keep in perspective what it is we’re trying to deal with. We’re trying to deal with hundreds of thousands of Australians that are dreadfully affected every year by problem gambling and it’s huge quantities of money – it’s something… on average, about $21,000 per year that’s poured into machines by problem gamblers, causing lasting social dislocation, damage, psychological damage, people being thrown out of work, families being broken up. That’s something we want to do something about.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  But, Mark, the problem is that mandatory pre-commitment most attacks and most impacts on the recreational gambler, on the people who don’t have a problem, the people who just want to put a small amount through the machine. That’s where the real problem lies – it will make it most inconvenient for those people. The dedicated problem gambler… they’ll go through filling out the paperwork, providing the ID, having their mandatory card. It’ll be the recreational gamblers who ‘check out’, so you’ll actually be developing a policy, and implementing a policy, that hits those who you really don’t want to target in this. That’s the madness of it.
MARK DREYFUS: We think it’s worth doing something about this.
DAVID LIPSON:  Alright, well, look, I want to talk as well about the economy today. There’s been meetings in Washington with top Finance Ministers and Treasurers and others in Washington to try to address the ‘euro zone’ debt crisis over the weekend. Now, the markets this morning in Australia haven’t fared as badly as perhaps we expected but clearly there are concerns about the world economy and concerns that Greece will default on its debt and that the rest of the world will suffer. Now, nothing concrete seemed to come out of these talks in Washington but, Simon Birmingham, do you think the world is doing enough to address what’s happening in Europe?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Ah, well, David, I saw on, I think, your one o’clock bulletin some interesting comments from David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, and he highlighted that this is a debt crisis. It is not part of the usual cyclical economic downturn into a recession and the one key point he had was you don’t solve a debt crisis by ‘opening up the money tap’ and the problem we have in Australia is that the Government has historically, and Wayne Swan in particular has, only had one solution to things when we’ve seen economic problems. That’s to ‘open up the money tap’. That’s the wrong response for a country like Australia. Obviously, you know, we want to see the world focused on addressing this debt crisis and that should be what all countries are focused on, domestically and internationally.
DAVID LIPSON:  The Government stimulus was put in place at a time when it was a financial problem, not a debt problem, and that is a very different situation, is it not?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Oh, look, we supported the first part of the stimulus; we had vast concerns about the second part of the stimulus that didn’t appear to be necessary but there were very clear debt concerns even at that time and, indeed, Opposition Members highlighted the concerns at the extent of debt Australia was undertaking and the impact of debt on countries. That has played out to be an accurate concern and a very accurate concern in the global markets now and that’s why we need to keep a very strong focus in this country on achieving the surplus that the Government appears to be running away from at a million miles an hour.
DAVID LIPSON:  Mark Dreyfus, I’ll get you to respond to that.
MARK DREYFUS: I don’t know how Simon can say we’re running away. We just… on your channel earlier today, the Finance Minister, Senator Wong, made it absolutely clear, again, that we are committed to returning to surplus in ’12-13 and I’m interested to hear from Simon that… this talk of debt. One thing that’s very clear about Australia – we don’t have a debt problem; we have the lowest debt in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development], and…
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  And thank you, Peter Costello and the Howard Government.
MARK DREYFUS: … and this ridiculous claiming of credit for something that’s now getting to be pretty much long ago in the past. The reason that Australia is in the very healthy position that it is today with low debt, low unemployment and the highest terms of trade that we’ve had in very many years is excellent management of the Australian economy by the Labor Government and that’s the reason why Wayne Swan was given this [Euromoney magazine] award that we saw him earlier today receiving.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  How on earth can you say…
MARK DREYFUS: Now, perhaps, I should let David ask a question.
MARK DREYFUS: … we are very, very well placed thanks to the sound management of our economy by the Labor Government since we came to office in 2007, which has seen 750,000 jobs created in that time, 140,000 people more are in work than 12 months ago, and we are very well placed to withstand whatever shocks are able to be dished out by the world economy.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  But how many surplus budgets have you delivered, Mark?   You’re claiming responsibility for low debt under your Government. How on earth can you have that when each year you’ve increased the debt?
DAVID LIPSON:  The Shadow Finance Minister, Andrew Robb, today put out a press release saying that, quote, ‘Wayne Swan needs to level with the Australian people about our vulnerability in the event of the global economy worsening’ but this morning Senator Mitch Fifield had this to say on AM Agenda. Have a listen.
MITCH FIFIELD: Wayne Swan is guilty of having talked the Australian economy down since the day he became Treasurer. One of the reasons why business confidence and consumer confidence is struggling at the moment is because people don’t have faith that Wayne Swan and the Government know what they’re doing.
DAVID LIPSON:  So, Senator Fifield there, essentially saying that Wayne Swan’s been too negative in his language; Andrew Robb seems to be saying, in his news release, that he’s being too positive. Simon Birmingham, which one is it?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Oh, look, I think Mitch is right to absolutely highlight that from the very early days of this Government, Wayne Swan was desperate to talk down the economic achievements of the Howard Government and paint a very gloomy picture, and that’s what he did for the first year in office, setting up, of course, a lead in to then the global financial crisis when there were real concerns, a scenario where he had already depressed business confidence, and business certainly doesn’t have a lot of confidence in Mr Swan as Treasurer. Now, obviously the global outlook at present is very worrying. It’s very worrying and that’s why we need steady hands in government, we need to be working assiduously to ensure that the Australian Government actually manages our economy and our budget in a very careful way going forward unlike the waste and mismanagement we’ve seen over the past few years.
DAVID LIPSON:  Mark Dreyfus, no one’s doubting Paul Keating’s contributions but why can’t Wayne Swan give some credit to Peter Costello?
MARK DREYFUS: Well, I would give some credit to the Howard Government for continuing the reforms that were commenced under the Hawke-Keating Governments.
DAVID LIPSON:  How do you explain the award, Simon Birmingham, if the economic management of Australia has been so bad?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Well, David, I think it is true to say, and I’m pleased to hear Mark say what Wayne Swan could not or would not, and that is that Peter Costello and the Howard Government have a role to play here, and I’m willing to acknowledge, absolutely, that the reforms of the Hawke-Keating years have a role to play as well. Wayne Swan as Treasurer inherited a very good situation – a good set of books, a good set of numbers and an economy in outstanding shape.
DAVID LIPSON:  Simon Birmingham, certainly the Opposition is fuelling this story. Could your side be accused of being a little bit mischievous here?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Well, I’m pleased to hear that Mark is disciplined and hard working and he gets on with the job but, if I read the weekend newspapers correctly, there were numerous stories across numerous newspapers quoting Labor MPs – yes, unnamed, but nonetheless inverted commas quotes from Labor MPs – absolutely fuelling this speculation, absolutely commenting on the state of Julia Gillard’s leadership, the prospects for Kevin Rudd, what the timelines for change may be. This is happening inside the Labor Party.
DAVID LIPSON:  Is there bipartisan support, Simon Birmingham, for Australia’s aid commitment [for the Horn of Africa famine response] so far?
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Absolutely, David. I think I can give full praise to the Government – last time I checked, Australia was, I think, a ‘top five’ contributor to the response in the Horn of Africa. That is an appropriate response for a country like Australia to be leading – we are a wealthy country and we should be making sure that, in these international crises, where women and children and whole communities are starving, that we do our bit to try to assist them and, as Mark said, it’s only tragic that, of course, this is a circumstance that is repeating itself, from something that Bob Geldof was so associated with a couple of decades ago.
DAVID LIPSON:  Well, gentlemen, unfortunately I think we’re out of time but, Mark Dreyfus, Simon Birmingham, thank you both very much for your insights on Lunchtime Agenda today. We’ll catch up with you next time.
SIMON BIRMINGHAM:  Good to be with you, David.