The Herald Sun is continuing to kick the Bracks Government hard
over its addiction to gaming revenue and yesterday’s phone poll
concluded that 95% of readers don’t want any more pokies polluting
their state.

The push by Woolworths to potentially acquire its own pokies licence in
Victoria, or win the right to own the machines in its 83 Victorian pubs,
will put the retailing giant in the midst of a long and bruising debate
over the coming 12 months until the government announces the industry
structure it will adopt after the Tattersall’s and Tabcorp licences
expire in 2012.

I’m contemplating simultaneously
running for the Woolworths board and state parliament on an anti-pokies
platform in November, but reckon the retailing giant will have a new
chairman by then because the heat in the kitchen will get too hot for
James Strong. The former Qantas CEO and IAG chairman is now overloaded
with commitments having re-joined the Qantas board and added the chair
of the Australia Council to a long list of arts gigs, which doesn’t sit
comfortably with the way Woolworths promotes poker machines to braindead problem gamblers in Melbourne’s poorest suburbs.

Other corporate leaders have bailed from the pokies under a bit of public pressure. During an all-too-brief stint editing The AFR’s Rear Window column in 1999, this edited item appeared on 24 August, 1999.

Foster’s pokies under wraps

Shhhhh. Don’t mention the pokies profits.
Foster’s Brewing continued its low-key policy about being Australia’s
biggest pokies company when Ted Kunkel unveiled another impressive set of
results yesterday.
Buried in the result was a line that Australian Leisure and Hospitality had
lifted EBIT from $54.1million to $81.2 million in fiscal 1998-99.

This was largely driven by the Austotel acquisition from Brierley Investments
last year, but Foster’s continues to pretend it’s much more than an
opportunistic gaming strategy given that Australians are the biggest gamblers in
the world and service 21 per cent of the world’s poker machines.

John Howard says he’s ashamed about Australia’s gambling addiction,
but Foster’s chairman John Ralph, a regular churchgoer, is
clearly happy to make hay while the pokies sun shines.
Foster’s lifted its poker machine numbers from 3,400 to 5,770 over the
12 months as its pub portfolio expanded from 100 to 150.

Lo and behold, devout Catholic Ralph retired the very next day, although he might have been going anyway.

Woolworths bought ALH in 2004 and is now Australia’s biggest pokies
player, with more than 5000 machines in Victoria alone. Church going CEO
Roger Corbett claims to have been morally challenged by this, but went
ahead anyway with the support of chairman Strong.

Gaming has become more mainstream in Australia than any other country
in the world – just look at the corporate powerbrokers on the PBL board
– but surely someone like Strong doesn’t sleep well at night knowing
the misery Woolworths is causing. Only last week I heard of a single
mum who dropped $7,000 in 45 minutes playing their machines. It’s a
disgrace and Australia’s new Mr Arts should resign forthwith.

Peter Fray

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