The first time I met Joe Hockey was 19 years ago in the back of a cab from Sydney Airport with my then boss, Victorian treasurer Alan Stockdale.
Joe was working for NSW Premier John Fahey and we were packed into the cab like sardines listening to the big guy rattle off all the things making life tough for the minority NSW government. One of them was Kerry Packer’s tactic of buying up various parcels of land around the proposed site of Sydney’s first casino.
As fate would have it, in the end it was effectively Stockdale’s actions that determined the long-term ownership of Sydney’s monopoly casino.
Fast forward to May this year and James Packer is openly campaigning on a range of fronts to secure control of all casino gambling in his home town.
While Karl Bitar might have been the national secretary of the ALP in 2010 who thought his NSW Right mate Craig Thomson would be a great candidate in Dobell, it hasn’t stopped Packer’s Crown Ltd hiring Bitar to run the casino billionaire’s government relations campaigns in Canberra. This clearly includes a big Chinese gambler tourism message, which is assisted by having Crown director Geoff Dixon as chairman of Tourism Australia.
You see, while Tony Abbott is worried the Gillard government’s latest cash splash will be spent on the pokies, it is Hockey’s great moderate mate Barry O’Farrell who currently presides over Australia’s slackest regulatory regime for poker machines and is encouraging Packer’s Sydney casino push.
“The NSW Liberals and Nationals have signed a Memorandum of Understanding that represents an outstanding statement of support for clubs, large and small, and provides much needed certainty in all our key areas of operation. The centrepiece is a commitment to reduce club tax by $300 million over four years and to introduce a ClubGrants scheme (replacing CDSE) to boost club support of worthy local community programs and organisations, and to fund major projects around the state.
The MoU also commits the NSW Liberals and Nationals to: supporting a precommitment system that is voluntary for the player, venue-based, and cost effective; maintaining existing conditions for maximum bets, reel spin speeds, cash insertion, ATM placement and withdrawal limits, and payment of prizes by cheque; and rescinding section 41X of the Registered Clubs Act and introducing a “reasonable steps” defence for club managers into the Liquor Act.”
One interesting element of the four-year agreement with Clubs NSW is that the O’Farrell government will “not allow additional casinos”. That runs smack-bang into Packer’s campaign to build a tables-only high-roller facility at Barangaroo aimed at Chinese tourists.
The Packer campaign went mass market last night when 2011 Gold Logie winner Karl Stefanovic proved once and for all why he’ll never win a Gold Walkley with an appalling pro-casino puff piece on 60 Minutes. It’s hard to know where to start, but SBS Insight host Jenny Brockie was putting it mildly when she tweeted:
“Staggering puff piece on 60 mins pushing James Packer’s casino plans. Tourism problems so easily solved. Nature out, casinos in.”
You’d have thought Nine would have learnt the lesson after the backlash about the Clubs NSW scripts that were read out on prime time slamming mandatory precommitment during an NRL final. Yet here we had a guffawing Packer arguing 13 casinos and 190,000 poker machines is not enough for Australians, already the biggest gamblers in the world.
The 60 Minutes piece demonstrates Packer doesn’t need to own a television station to benefit. It is far cheaper to have your best mate David Gyngell installed as CEO by the same private equity wood ducks that handed over $5.5 billion for PBL Media.
Packer would have a bit more credibility if he returned to his original opposition of separating Crown from the clubs and pubs spread across Australia. At the 2009 Crown AGM, Packer slammed the pubs and clubs on problem gambling when he declared:
“No one else in Australia has introduced a precommitment scheme across their gaming machine operation. In fact, the rest of the industry is still debating whether a precommitment system should be adopted in the years to come.”
However, the Andrew Wilkie proposal united the entire industry, with Packer and even Woolworths signing up to the anti precommitment campaign co-ordinated by Clubs NSW.
In light of everything that has happened with Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper, surely Julia Gillard and the broader Labor movement now realises it would have been better to stare down the captured politicians in the NSW Right and deliver on her pokies deal with Andrew Wilkie.
Instead, they again listened to Bitar who is pocketing plenty of Packer cash for his efforts.