We all know that James Packer doesn’t get out much in public, so The Australian Financial Review was clearly chuffed that he agreed to give yesterday’s star-studded “Chanticleer Chairman’s Lunch” in Sydney some extra gravitas.

But surely the world’s most expensive financial daily didn’t have to simultaneously unleash Pamela Williams with a front-page story that, yet again, grossly exaggerated the size and impact of the pokies industry campaign against the Gillard government’s reform proposals.

The pokies industry, especially Clubs NSW, has repeatedly been shown by Media Watch and others to be over-reaching in its claims.

By now, we all know that the purported $20 million “licence to punt” advertising campaign — which the AFL has absolutely nothing to do with — has actually been closer to $2 million.

So how on earth does the AFR splash a story across the front, headlined: “Pokies industry precommits $40m to see MPs lose”.

Think carefully about what these paragraphs on page one of the AFR actually mean:

A coalition of powerful opponents, ranging from the giant Crown casino business headed by James Packer, through to thousands of clubs and hotels under the leadership of Clubs Australia and the Australian Hotels Association, have the government in its sights.

Their campaign, relatively low-key so far, now has commitments from the gaming industry of close to $40 million to deploy against Labor MPs. One industry player privately predicted this week that the pokies campaign would attempt to eviscerate the government’s ranks of ministers and parliamentary secretaries at the next election if no compromise was reached.

Between the gaming industry players, high-level agreement has been reached that the ratio to fund their campaign will be struck at one-third from the clubs lobby, one-third from the casino operators and one-third from the hotels association.

Jeepers, our normally sober national financial daily has revealed that a staggering $40 million will be spent just to campaign against some democratically elected politicians over a reform proposal supported by more than 60% of the population in a country with the biggest problem gambling issue in the world.

That’s almost double the $23 million spent by the $1 trillion-plus mining industry stopping the resources super profits tax. Could it possibly be true?

Seeing as Woolworths is the largest member of the Australian Hotels’ Association and Fairfax Media chairman Roger Corbett was the Woolies CEO who took it into the pokies business, you’d think the AFR would have at least disclosed this association.

Then again, maybe this is just another example of Clubs NSW CEO Anthony Ball grossly exaggerating the bullying threats and dragging other parties into it, as we saw with the AFL.

Channel Nine certainly got sucked into this vortex with its prime time political commentary during the NRL finals and now it has got an ACMA inquiry into potential licence breaches to deal with.

I emailed the following question to Woolworths spin doctor Simon Berger this morning:

“As the largest pokies operator in Australia with more than 12,000 machines and the biggest member of the AHA, could you let me know how much of that $40 million the Woolies board has signed off for shareholders to invest in trying to defeat Federal Labor MPs, or whether the story is actually an exaggerated threat by the industry?”

There was no reply before deadline.

A similar query was sent to Wesfarmers, which operates almost 2000 pokies through its Coles hotels division, and spokesman Robert Hadler replied as follows: “As previously discussed, Coles has not contributed any money to the AHA campaign. It remains our understanding that the clubs in NSW are funding that campaign.”

Woolworths has a star-studded board, which, in January included the addition of Jillian Broadbent, the woman who was this week appointed chairman of the expert panel advising the federal government on its $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Company.

This front-page association with the feral Clubs NSW campaign must also be an interesting ride for Ian Macfarlane, the former Reserve Bank governor who joined the Woolworths board in 2007.

Ironically, Broadbent is also one of those directors as Wayne Swan re-appointed her in 2008 to a third five-year term on the RBA board.

The likes of Broadbent and Macfarlane are presumably relieved that these Labor MPs who are going to be destroyed by this pokies campaign are also working so hard to protect the current and former RBA directors and governors from any parliamentary scrutiny over the Securency bribery scandal.

As this list of all current and past RBA directors, Broadbent is the longest serving of the existing independent directors who was first appointed by Peter Costello in 1998.

Why shouldn’t she be grilled by a parliamentary committee about what RBA directors knew of these alleged bribes, which led to the arrest of six former Securency executives in July?

Corbett would be another option for some parliamentary scrutiny over the Securency governance breaches as he was appointed to the RBA board in 2005 and has the gig through until 2015.

It’s a strange juxtaposition to watch RBA board member Corbett, as Fairfax chairman, preside over the publication of the award-winning coverage on Securency by The Age’s Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker, which has been picked up in global coverage, such as this story in  The Wall Street Journal last week.

Peter Fray

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