Six months after the late Peta Murphy’s parliamentary committee report on online gambling was released, the Albanese Government is yet to make its response. Freedom of Information documents show why. Communications Minister Michelle Rowland has been busy conducting secret consultations with “key stakeholders”. Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling unpack the government’s form on gambling reform.
Radio silence on advertising reform
The final week of Federal Parliament this year was notable for the outpouring of grief at the passing of the Labor Member for Dunkley, Peta Murphy, to cancer on December 4. Eighty-three members of the House of Representatives – Labor, Liberal, National, Greens and cross-bench MPs, spoke in support of a bipartisan condolence motion.
More than half of the MPs who spoke highlighted Murphy’s strong commitment to gambling reform and her role leading the House of Representatives Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs inquiry into online gambling. It speaks volumes that everyone involved in that multiparty committee simply calls it ‘the Murphy Report’.”
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese spoke of Murphy’s contributions, saying: “Peta … led the charge on new reforms to minimise the harm caused by online gambling”. Communications Minister Michelle Rowland spoke in similar terms.
So, amidst all the praise and platitudes, one might ask where ‘the Murphy report’ is at today. It’s been radio silence from the Government since the report, titled ‘You win some, you lose more’, was tabled exactly six months ago.
The inquiry, which commenced in September 2022, was comprehensive and exhaustive. The Committee received 161 submissions. There were thirteen public hearings that heard evidence from academic experts, gambling reform campaigners, medical, financial and social welfare organisations, as well as broadcasters, sports codes and wagering companies.
In early March 2023, Murphy warned broadcasters, major sporting organisations, and betting companies could expect recommendations for more restrictions on gambling advertisements after the inquiry had received “powerful evidence” of harmful practices.
Unsurprisingly, there was pushback from a $50 billion sector, with the peak bodies from TV and radio broadcasters arguing against any further restrictions on gambling advertising.
Free TV Australia, the peak industry body for commercial television broadcasters, declared that “Any further restrictions would have significant revenue implications for Australian TV networks and their ability to invest in sports; news and current affairs; and Australian content.” Major sporting codes asserted at a public hearing that funding to grassroots sports could decline. The greyhound racing industry went as far as to claim that without gambling advertising, animal welfare would suffer.
A strong report
On 28 June 2023, Murphy tabled the Committee’s much-anticipated report. For those concerned about the social and economic costs of online gambling, the report did not disappoint.
Thirty-one recommendations applied a public health focus to online gambling to reduce harm to Australians. The report particularly highlighted the pernicious impacts of gambling advertising, with Murphy declaring that “Gambling advertising and simulated gambling through video games, is grooming children and young people to gamble and encourages riskier behaviour. The torrent of advertising is inescapable. It is manipulating an impressionable and vulnerable audience to gamble online”.
The report recommended a phased, comprehensive ban on online gambling advertising be implemented within three years. A phased approach was proposed to give major sports and broadcasters time to find alternative advertisers and sponsors while preventing another generation from experiencing escalating gambling harm.
In response, Communications Minister Rowland thanked Murphy and her committee for their work and undertook to consider the report and its recommendations in full “in consultation with key stakeholders”.
Squaring the circle
Six months on, with the Government’s response due, uncertainty has emerged as to whether the Government is sitting firmly behind its own declaration that it’s in favour of gambling and gambling advertising reform.
The Albanese Government is acutely aware of the political power of the major broadcasters, sporting codes and the gambling industry itself. Those sectors have made it clear they consider vital commercial interests are threatened by the Murphy report’s recommendations.
The normal practice for responding to a parliamentary committee report is for the minister to refer the report to the relevant department for advice and a draft response, which is then considered by the Minister and perhaps the Cabinet. While this might involve some further consultations, the Committee report and the public evidence it has taken and presented are generally taken as the basis for a decision.
Not so for this inquiry.
To square the political circle, Rowland has embarked on an extraordinary round of behind-closed-doors consultations, in effect a secret inquiry to review and potentially second-guess the Murphy report recommendations.
Documents released under Freedom of Information have revealed that Minister Rowland and her Office have been conducting an exhaustive round of secret meetings, starting in late June and continuing until at least 11 December. No less than sixty-six consultations have been conducted over this period, with fifteen attended by the Minister herself.
Rowland hasn’t been enthusiastic about releasing this information. Her office has literally thrown the legal kitchen sink in an effort to redact information from the released documents, claiming Cabinet confidentiality, deliberative process, commercial-in-confidence, and personal privacy exceptions to withhold information from public release.
Despite this, however, a broad picture of the Communication Minister’s de facto inquiry-after-the-inquiry has emerged.
Rowland and her office have engaged with gambling reform advocates and industry stakeholders. She met with Murphy on 2 August 2023 and independent Senator David Pocock the following day. There was also a briefing for cross-bench MPs on 25 July.
That said, what is striking is the extent to which she has opened her door to behind-the-scenes lobbying by industry, broadcasters, the major sporting codes, gambling companies and online platforms. These interests have taken up the bulk of the consultative process.
Behind-the-scenes input only
Significantly, this process has involved companies, internet platforms and technology providers that did not take up an opportunity to engage with Murphy’s committee, including Meta, TikTok, Snapchat, Google, Channel Seven, Channel Nine, Foxtel, BlueBet, BetFair/Crown. These companies didn’t want their arguments subject to public scrutiny but were happy to push their interests behind closed doors.
Major sporting codes, including the National Rugby League (NRL) and Australian Football League, did reluctantly front a public hearing of the House of Representatives committee, but it appears they’ve been much more forthcoming in private consultation with the government, with the NRL making a lengthy submission to Rowland.
Some details have been released. For example, in August and October, the NSW greyhound racing industry again warned Rowland that animal welfare would be jeopardised by any reduction in gambling revenue. Yes, apparently, greyhounds will die if online gambling advertising is curtailed.
However, the vast bulk of these consultations have been conducted on the basis of strict secrecy. An invitation sent to the leading gambling industry lobbying group, Responsible Wagering Australia, emphasised discussions would be undertaken on “a strictly confidential basis” and would be given to “appropriate protection”.
Rowland’s office has refused to release details of almost all of these consultations.
For example, the NRL’s submission to the Government has been almost completely withheld from FOI release on the grounds of commercial confidentiality.
Players and umpires
Independent Member for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, who’s seen the FOI material cuts to the chase, “It appears the gambling giants and sports broadcasters think they can not only be players on the field, but be the umpire and decide the rules of the game while Michelle Rowland stands on the sideline shouting encouragement”.
It remains to be seen what the Albanese Government’s response to the Murphy Report will be. It’s likely they’ll announce a package of reforms that will be presented as a major effort to the harm caused by online gambling, but will this extend to full acceptance of the Murphy Report recommendations, especially those relating to advertising?
Minister Rowland’s backdoor industry consultations don’t inspire confidence. She’s displaced the public and accountable process of the parliamentary inquiry with a secretive and unaccountable path. It’s certainly suggestive of a government in fear of the political leverage of the broadcasting and gambling industries.
Ms Daniel is fearful Peta Murphy will be betrayed. “Anything less than a total ban on gambling advertising on all platforms would be a betrayal of Peta Murphy’s legacy and hard work. It would be giving the gambling sector just what they want – the appearance of action when all it would do would enable them to continue to normalise the intersection between gambling and sport and wreck the lives of thousands more, mainly young people”.
Robbing Peta to pay Paul
The late Peta Murphy was a rare politician with the courage to take on a big and avaricious industry. From time to time, these forces have ruthlessly used their political power and leverage against parliamentarians who were seen to threaten their commercial interests – just ask former independent senator Nick Xenophon.
However Communications Minister Rowland and the Albanese Government have probably got the message. They’re likely to be pretty anxious not to disappoint their “key stakeholders”.