The pokies debate has exploded over the past 24 hours after Clubs NSW used its influence over the NRL to try to impose its campaign against Andrew Wilkie’s reform agenda on the AFL’s grand final week program.

With no NRL or AFL finals on Sunday, elements of both codes leapt into the media vacuum yesterday and won themselves a truckload of coverage in today’s newspapers.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire kicked things off on Friday morning’s Channel Nine Today show with his reference to a so-called “footy tax”.

News Limited’s Samantha Maiden then pulled this together adding some Jeff Kennett quotes for a mischievous beat-up in the Sunday tabloids, which suggested a full-on AFL public advertising campaign was about to be launched. This is rubbish.

Meanwhile, Clubs NSW leapt on this News Ltd distortion and CEO Anthony Ball summonsed St George Leagues Club CEO Peter Doust to a midday doorstop yesterday at their Kogarah Taj Mahal. But the PR didn’t go all their way.

The Australian’s colour piece this morning on the punters at St George featured a member called David Kavanagh who savaged his own club when stating: “Is it worth someone killing themselves because of a gambling addiction, to see footballers?”

Like with most tax-exempt NSW Leagues clubs, the St George’s facilities are grossly over-capitalised. However, St George CEO Peter Doust told The Australian the Wilkie reforms would bring down the shutters on his operation.

“It means jobs, 200 jobs,” he said. “This is about our club fighting to survive. We will close if this system is successful.”

But a quick look at the latest financial statements for St George show a club with no net debt, cash of $3 million, $45 million of property, plant and equipment, retained earnings of $37.8 million and operating cash flow last year of $2.5 million.

It is a typically asset rich NRL Leagues Club whose latest financial statements even boast ownership of “a number of residential properties”.

It is true that $32 million of its $39 million in gross revenue came from losses on the 418 poker machines that it operates, but no one is suggesting the Wilkie proposal will force St George to close them down. Moving to low-intensity machines with a maximum bet of $1 is easy and cheap to implement and would cater for all those recreational gamblers they claim to serve. If St George wants to retain machines where addicts can lose more than $10,000 an hour, then a system of mandatory pre-commitment will be imposed to stop vulnerable people being fleeced.

While Media Watch has regularly exposed over-the-top claims by the NSW pokies industry, the position of the AFL clubs in Victoria is a lot more sensitive.

ALH, the joint venture between Woolworths and pokies billionaire Bruce Mathieson, operates venues for Collingwood, Carlton, Hawthorn and the Western Bulldogs. The Carlton situation is tricky politically because Mathieson copped plenty of stick last year when he seemingly shafted the Western Bulldogs and Richmond by shifting some of their pokies business to his own team, Carlton.

Given the Mathieson connection as a former Carlton director, it made more sense for Woolies to prod its other client clubs to front a grand final week campaign.

Outgoing Hawthorn president Kennett and McGuire duly stepped up with their reference to a “footy tax” and Kennett even claimed they “threaten the survival of the code”. But two out of 18 AFL presidents does not make an AFL campaign. That position may be reached today at a meeting of all presidents, but Clubs NSW should not hold its breath.

The AFL itself has not joined the Clubs NSW campaign, as Anthony Ball and Peter Doust declared in front of a 15-strong press pack at the St George Leagues Club yesterday.

Indeed, new Geelong president Colin Carter stuck his neck out on the front page of The Australian Financial Review today when he was quoted as follows: “We are not at all opposed to this. The abundant evidence is that we have a national problem in this area.”

These words are especially important because Carter is a strong Christian who spent 15 years as an AFL commissioner and has served on the Wesfarmers board since 2002.

Wesfarmers operates several hundred pokies through its Coles hotels business but it has strongly differentiated itself from industry leader Woolies, agreeing to a range of concessions in 2009 after being targeted by anti-pokies campaigner Paul Bendat.

In a week when we should all be talking about the grand final, Jon Faine spent more than an hour on 774 ABC Melbourne this morning talking about the AFL and pokies. The pokies industry and people such as McGuire got slaughtered. Even NRL hero Steve Mortimer came across as a stammering fool. And it won’t help the AFL players either who are looking greedy with their hands out for massive pay rises after the record $1.2 billion media rights deal.

The question remains: why do these cashed-up athletes on huge six-figure packages need to be associated with targeting problem gamblers in the country with the highest gambling rates on earth?

Peter Fray

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