The James Packer ALP advisory team of Graham Richardson, Karl Bitar and former Kim Beazley chief-of-staff Gary O’Neill, today have played one of their trump cards in the campaign to head off Andrew Wilkie’s pokies reform agenda.
It came in the form of an exclusive interview granted to The AFR’s
leading feature writer Pamela Williams. The front-page treatment led with the claim that Julia Gillard was anti-business but the body of the story detailed a long line of ALP Right heavyweights who have travelled to Crown in Melbourne for an audience with James Packer to hear his complaints.
These include Wayne Swan, Stephen Conroy, Mark Arbib and Bill Shorten, the factional players most associated with the discredited NSW Labor Right and symbolised by the tactics of people such as Richardson and Bitar.
The only Left figure to turn up at Crown was Jenny Macklin, the minister who has carriage of the reforms and appears genuinely committed to helping pokies addicts.
Interestingly, Gillard appears to have had no contact with Packer, a stark contrast to the old days when Kerry Packer would personally ring and meet with the likes of Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard to demand favours from government, most notably through protection of the free-to-air television oligopoly.
Wilkie has also confirmed publicly the level of his engagement with Crown, which has comprised several phone calls and meetings.
The problem James Packer has got is sustaining an argument that it is just fine for a billionaire to further enrich his family by targeting pokies addicts from poorer suburbs who traditionally look to the Labor Party for support and protection.
As is well known now, Australians are the world’s biggest gamblers in per capita terms and poker machines produce a majority of the $20 billion-plus in annual losses.
Crown’s argument continues to revolve around the need to support Australia’s tourism industry through the high-roller business at the Crown and Burswood casinos, which are under assault
from new offerings in Singapore and Macau.
Packer first mounted this argument publicly
at the 2009 Crown AGM and it is absolutely true that rich tourists have lost more than $7 billion at these two casinos since they opened.
However, this has nothing to do with the proposed Wilkie reforms. Asian high rollers play table games, with a particular focus on baccarat. They all know that Australian pokies are a mug's game when it comes to player skill and the odds offered.
The business case of investing billions in lavish facilities to accommodate Asian high rollers is totally separate to the targeting of local pokies addicts for the so-called "grind" business.
In terms of the retribution, Packer is threatening if the reforms proceed, the best he can offer is the old "we’ll take our capital offshore".
The obvious problem here is that the $3 billion invested so far in Crown can’t exactly be popped on a barge and shipped to Macau.
Besides, Crown is just coming to the end of a heavy investment program
in its two Australian casinos and it last week announced plans
to invest $US2.5 billion in a third Macau casino anyway.
This is an entirely different situation to the Resources Super Profits Tax where the global mining giants were able to genuinely threaten a capital strike on the $100 billion-plus capital investment pipeline if Kevin Rudd’s revenue grab proceeded.
Truth be known, Packer’s real trump cards in the pokies campaign are the two old favourites of political donations and media coverage.
His great mates Alan Jones and John Singleton are dutifully using 2GB to slug the Gillard government at every opportunity.
Packer has also teamed with billionaire mining heiress Gina Rinehart to back Lachlan Murdoch into the CEO’s chair at Network Ten where Andrew Bolt has been hired to broaden the coalition of major commercial media outlets campaigning for the government to fall.
Rinehart famously paid for climate sceptic Lord Monckton to come to Australia last year and with Tony Abbott today forced to criticise Monckton
for labelling Ross Garnaut a fascist, the anti-Gillard Coalition will need to be careful not to overplay their hand.
After all, when it comes to the pokies it really does look like the Prime Minister is almost Thatcher-like in her stance that "this lady is not for turning".
Wilkie is equally determined, again telling Senators, crossbenchers and ALP factional heavies alike that he’ll happily bring down the government if the pokies reform package is not through both houses by May 31 next year.
Talk about an amazing game of cliff-top poker.