Well how about that. Roger Corbett, the former Woolworths CEO who turned the retail giant into Australia’s biggest pokies company, had lunch with Ron Walker, the Liberal Party treasurer who made $100 million out of the Kennett’s Government’s casino tender, at Machiavelli’s in Sydney this week.

Were the pokies moguls and two most powerful Fairfax Media directors plotting the future of our most venerable media company? Indeed, with David Kirk resigning this morning it would appear so.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Fairfax was run by media types rather than controversial figures who profited from turning Australians into the world’s biggest per capita gamblers.

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Whilst the Fairfax broadsheets and The AFR are still yet to report any of this, the Corbett pokies legacy at Woolworths is coming under increasing pressure from a very unusual activist.

This Crikey story on October 6 revealed that Paul Bendat, the son of BRW Rich Lister Jack Bendat, is behind the www.pokieact.org website which is dedicated to having children banned from pokies venues.

Bendat was interviewed on 774 ABC Melbourne that night attacking the Woolworths attitude of “if it’s legal we’ll sell it”. Okay, then where is the chain of Safeway brothels, he asked?

Given that BRW reckons Jack Bendat, the man who got Kerry Stokes into regional shopping centres and later media, was worth $606 million last May, it was interested in his son’s new mission and produced this story last month.

But it doesn’t end there. Paul Bendat has literally visited hundreds of pokies venues as part of his campaign and has compiled a comprehensive shame file about the Woolworths pokies business in Victoria.

Woolworths had been studiously ignoring Bendat’s letters when he hit on the strategy of writing to the external auditor, Deloittes partner Rod Smith. The Corporations Law requires an auditor to answer written questions about audit processes and this jolted Woolworths into action.

Next thing Bendat knew he and fellow anti-pokies campaigner Gabriella Byrne were meeting with this extraordinary array of Woolies heavies at The Langham Hotel in Melbourne three days before the November 27 AGM:

Tom Pockett, finance director
Peter Horton, company secretary
Rod Smith, external auditor
Andrew Hall, PR supremo
Ross Blair-Holt, Bruce Mathieson’s long-serving deputy in the pokies business

The AGM itself produced the remarkable revelation that Woolworths had responded to Bendat’s campaign by calling in PwC to conduct a full audit of its Victorian pokies operation to ensure they were compliant with all regulations and responsible gaming codes.

Have a listen to the exchanges.

Sadly, none of this was even reported in the Fairfax press. Given that Woolworths is the biggest Fairfax advertiser and Roger Corbett drove its push to operate 11,000 machines nationwide, surely it’s time he and Ron Walker headed for the Fairfax exit along with David Kirk.

The New York Times is not run by Las Vegas gaming moguls, so why should Ron Walker and Roger Corbett be calling the shots at Fairfax?

The Bendat campaign marches on as he has teamed up with Tim Costello and Nick Xenophon for a rally in Melbourne on Monday to urge Australians to spend their $1000 government handout on presents not pokies.

As Australia’s biggest retailer, Woolies probably doesn’t care too much because they’ll collect much of the cash either way.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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