Pressure is mounting on the blue-blood directors of Woolworths to decide whether they are pillars of the community feeding and clothing Australians, or pariahs who target problem gamblers and bankroll misleading campaigns against elected governments.
The contrast was there for all to see today when The Australian Financial Review’s Street Talk column described the retailing giant as follows in an item about hybrid debt rollovers headlined: “Woolies keen on perfect redemption”:
It also begs the question why Woolies didn’t just leave its 2006 vintage on issue and pay the stepped up interest margin of 3.1 percentage points above the bank bill rate — about the same rate or lower than the potential cost of fresh hybrid capital. Because Woolworths is a good corporate citizen, that’s why.
Fairfax Media chairman Roger Corbett would have been delighted to read such a description of his old employer in our national financial daily, but there are others views circulating.
Victorian Greens Senator Richard Di Natale today responded to the revelation on Friday that Woolies is pumping $250,000 into the anti-pokies campaign with a savage press release that included the following lines:
Woolworths are the largest pokies operator in Australia with more than 12,000 machines. Now they are contributing to a campaign which is intent on fighting reforms to help problem gamblers. No responsible corporate citizen should have anything to do with the poker machine industry’s grubby campaign.
When people buy their bread, milk or breakfast cereal from Woolies they should know that they are helping fund a campaign that will see the misery and suffering caused from problem gambling continue.
Woolies should take the same position as their main competitors Wesfarmers, which operates almost 2000 pokies through its Coles hotels division but has refused to fund the anti pokies campaign.
The pokies industry’s supposed $40m “war chest” would be more than enough to pay for the implementation of our proposed reform to cap bets at $1 per spin to reduce problem gambling.
In other pokies developments, The Age broke the story today about House Speaker Harry Jenkins making an unusual policy intervention with a strong attack on the pokies. Surely it is only a matter of time before a federal Coalition MP follows suit.
The Age probably should have disclosed that Sam Alessi, the Whittlesea councillor quoted in the story, is a fellow member of the ALP’s Socialist Left faction who used to work on the Speaker’s staff until the Brumby government made this illegal in 2009.
It is also interesting to note that Whittlesea Council, which takes in Jenkins’ seat of Scullin, has just launched a strong attack on Woolworths for its attempted changes to the council’s proposed $100 million town centre development at Mernda on Melbourne’s northern outskirts.
Several Victorian councils have noticed some increasingly aggressive tactics from Woolworths in recent years, which makes the hard line against pokies reform easier to understand.
But how are councillors to reconcile such tactics with this speech delivered by new Woolies CEO Grant O’Brien in front of 900 local government delegates in Canberra three months ago?
O’Brien’s predecessor Michael Luscombe only finally shuffled out the door on September 30, so maybe it is taking his successor a little time to put a different stamp on the business that has the fattest profit margins of any grocery retailer in the world.
Then again, the hard-line position of the Woolies board is probably more a reflection of chairman James Strong, who is also one of the Qantas directors happily going to war with his own workforce at the moment.
Politicians from all three tiers of government and right across the political divide have been lining up to slam Woolies in Manningham for its Supreme Court litigation to prevent a rival supermarket opening on council-owned land in East Doncaster after the Safeway supermarket was converted into a Dan Murphy’s grog shop.
This litigation is listed for a three-day slugfest next month and has already cost Manningham ratepayers well over $100,000.
In a totally unrelated development, Manningham councillors have also resolved to debate the introduction of a special rating charge on commercial pokies venues in the 2012-13 financial year.
Woolworths and its billionaire pokies partner Bruce Mathieson control more than 80% of the $60 million-plus a year lost on the pokies in Manningham.
And with a market capitalisation of $30 billion, they can well afford to pay a bit more.
Stephen Mayne is a councillor in the City of Manningham and was not paid for this contribution.