Pokies billionaire Bruce Mathieson may have retired as CEO of the giant ALH pubs and pokies joint venture with Woolworths on September 30, but his highly motivated opponents are continuing to drive hard for reform. Chief among them are the trio Mathieson famously dubbed “the three imbeciles” during this interview with 774 ABC Melbourne host Jon Faine in March 2010.
These comments pre-dated Andrew Wilkie’s emergence as a political kingmaker, so Mathieson was referring to Tim Costello, Nick Xenophon and wealthy founder Paul Bendat, the son of BRW Rich Lister Jack Bendat.
While Costello created plenty of waves last week when he persuaded Malcolm Turnbull to host this video discussing the need to tackle problem gambling, it was Bendat who stepped up today, funding this full-page ad in the Herald Sun.
There is a lot of noise in the pokies debate about massive advertising campaigns funded by billionaires such as James Packer and Mathieson, but Bendat’s full page Designed to fail ad attacking Victoria’s Liberal Gaming Minister Michael O’Brien shows this is clearly not a one-sided exercise.
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O’Brien has already shown off his glass jaw on pokies reform, especially through these rules on those providing submissions to his department:
“The department will only consider submissions relating to the implementation of the government’s pre-commitment policy.”
“The department will not consider any parts of submissions that seek to revisit the government’s determination that pre-commitment should be voluntary for players to use and must be available on all gaming machines in Victoria.”
This is a curious head-in-the-sand tactic given that the federal government — led by the two Victorian ALP Left heavyweights Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin — are talking about mandating pre-commitment.
Despite the Baillieu government’s reluctance to tackle serious pokies reform, Victoria is central to the campaign for change and Bendat’s full-page ad is a sign of what is to come for Victorian Liberals who oppose action being taken.
This is the biggest problem for Packer’s political fixer Karl Bitar, who is only used to dealing with Clubs NSW at the state level. While NSW councils have been largely silent, a growing number of Victorian councils have passed various motions endorsing the proposed federal pokies reforms.
Indeed, when our local federal MP in Manningham, Kevin Andrews, stepped out as Tony Abbott’s spokesman slamming the federal reforms, I gave him a solid public slap in the local paper saying he was completely out of step with his community given the Manningham councillors had voted 8-1 in favour of measures such as $1 maximum bets and compulsory pre-commitment.
Andrews is a big player in the Catholic Church and popular among church communities. He knows that the churches across the board are strong supporters of pokies reform, as can be seen by the positions taken by the likes of Family First, the DLP, the Christian Democrats and Fred Nile.
While Clubs NSW and Bitar are still working on options such as reinstating Kevin Rudd or forcing a Labor caucus coup against the Wilkie reforms, a bigger problem for them is potentially Turnbull’s embrace of Costello’s position and the support for reforms among many conservative Coalition MPs.When it comes to the crunch, how on earth will the large number of federal Coalition MPs from Western Australia vote against making eastern seaboard pokies less dangerous when there is bipartisan support in their state for a complete ban on all pokies outside of Burswood Casino?
With billions of dollars of tax revenue at stake, state governments will ultimately play a pivotal role in the final proposal once the draft legislation is released in the coming weeks. There is already talk of High Court challenges and the states will need some compensation.
In terms of how hard the states fight, it is the Queensland and Victorian governments that will be subjected to the heaviest scrutiny when the debate gets down to the wire.
Queenslanders are due to go to the polls in March next year and already prominent conservatives such as Barnaby Joyce have come out strongly against poker machines.
As Crikey has noted before, the O’Farrell government in NSW is firmly in the pocket of Clubs NSW, but this probably won’t matter in the end. The so-called community donations by Clubs in NSW are deductible from their state pokies tax and the O’Farrell government has agreed to a sweetheart deal that raises the amount that can be deducted.
Even worse, the O’Farrell government has promised Clubs NSW it will introduce unlimited multiterminal gaming machines, which opens the door for faux roulette and faux blackjack right across the state.
Despite the entrenchment of pokies in NSW since 1956, there was a lot of criticism of Woolworths about its 12,000 machines when the company last held its AGM in Sydney in 2009.
A lot has happened since then, so it will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds next Thursday when Woolworths shareholders gather at the Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre for the 2011 AGM.