The Australian Hotels Association (NSW), the powerful publicans’ lobby group which is responsible for keeping the state Labor Party flush with funds, is undergoing a seismic changing of the guard.
Long-serving chief executive Brian Ross, 68, is stepping down this week. His successor, who starts next Monday, is a female – the first in the AHA’s history. She is 34-year-old (half Ross’s age) Sally Fielke, a solicitor and former CEO of the Northern Territory AHA.
Next month the even longer serving president, John Thorpe, also 68, is taking last orders with 35-year-old vice president Scott Leach expected to be elected to the presidency. Leach, also a solicitor, is mine host at the Rose of Australia pub in inner-city Erskineville.
The departure of the formidable Thorpe-Ross team ends an era of the State’s political history when the NSW Labor Party and the liquor industry enjoyed a joined-at-the-hip relationship. Both men regularly visited State Parliament during sitting days to watch question time from the public gallery before going upstairs to schmooze ministers and senior staffers.
Within hours of Cabinet and Labor Caucus meetings they often had reliable information in their hands. Their sources were reliable and top drawer.
For many years the AHA kept mini-bars in some MPs’ offices topped up with beer, wine and spirits and, come election time, they stood ready to send grog to fund-raising functions and host others.
The full extent of the AHA’s election donations will probably never be quantified but they were certainly in excess of $2 million while some insiders say it could be double that.
The AHA’s generosity was well placed. Soon after taking office in 1995, the Carr Government broke the registered clubs’ monopoly on poker machines and gave the go-ahead for pokies in pubs.
The decision transformed a generation of publicans into multi-millionaires and turned corner pubs into mini-casinos and goldmines. Naturally they were immensely grateful and wanted the goldrush to continue, so they tipped into the Labor Party bucket every time it was passed around – which was often.
Meanwhile, billions of dollars of peoples’ hard-earned wages have been poured into the pokies in pubs across Sydney, Wollongong and Newcastle and in struggling rural districts. Thank you, Bob Carr, now with the Macquarie Bank.
On arrival in their new posts, Fielke and Leach will find that publicans no longer command the same level of attention. The grasping, greedy pubs have been relegated in the pecking order and the ascendant liquor/gaming group is Clubs NSW with its 2 million members. But neither the clubs nor pubs can touch the government’s new pre-eminent friends who, of course, are the fast-quid merchants known as developers.