Paul Bendat, one of Australia’s most effective and unusual campaigners for poker machine reform, passed away on Friday after a battle with cancer. He was 67.
Paul was much more than just a tenacious combatant who pokies billionaire Bruce Mathieson once described as one of “the three imbeciles”, alongside Nick Xenophon and Tim Costello.
The son of 92-year-old Perth-based rich lister Jack Bendat, Paul gave the last 10 years of his life to boots-and-all pokies reform campaigning, whilst also pursuing side-lines such as bankrolling British theatre productions like 1984 and investing in pioneering indigenous social enterprises in Aurukun.
I first met Paul at a Harold Mitchell Melbourne Press Club lunch in June 2006. He’d just moved back from New York after selling his US radio business.
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Having spent his formative years working with his father in an 18-year business partnership with Kerry Stokes, Paul loved the media business and the association with politics.
Stokes and Jack Bendat parted company after a Lowy family investment vehicle led by David Gonski agreed to pay News Corp $840 million for the east coast Channel Ten stations in 1986.
Stokes wanted to compete hard in the Ten auction but Jack Bendat didn’t want to invest outside Western Australia.
It was a good bullet to dodge as the Lowys won Channel Ten but dropped close to $500 million when it went broke in 1990. Paul worked for the Lowys when they ran Ten, before later returning to his father’s WA-based radio and regional television business and also assisting a successful family push into the wine business.
Given all of this entrepreneurial success, the path to becoming an anti-pokies campaigner was an unusual one.
After our Harold Mitchell lunch meeting, Paul volunteered on the margins of the campaign of start-up political party People Power during the 2006 Victorian election. This is when he first met some of the anti-pokies campaigners.
A part of the People Power campaign, I ran for the Woolworths board in 2006 on an anti-pokies platform, but the AGM was in Sydney on the day before the election, so Paul flew to Sydney and attended as proxy.
He was outraged by the way then Woolworths chairman James Strong and CEO Michael Luscombe talked about turning their vast pubs business into family friendly destinations targeting kids.
Shortly after the People Power experiment, Paul and I went into business with The Mayne Report, which was originally intended to be a daily video blog.
Paul invested more than $50,000 on the website, home studio and camera equipment but then decided to amicably exit shortly before we formally launched in October 2007.
Instead, Paul threw himself into the pokies campaign through his pokieact.org website which later morphed into this blog. He was appalled by the normalisation of poker machines in the eyes of children and in 2008 began a campaign to have Coles and Woolies hotels overhauled so that kids were not exposed to the sights and sounds of poker machine gambling.
He made and broadcast this 30-second television ad featuring our daughter Alice, who was six at the time.
Paul’s decision to take on the poker machine industry involved travelling around Australia taking photos of every Woolworths and Coles-owned hotel he could find, in order to illustrate the problem. He eventually made a book of the pictures he took, which he then sent to the bosses of Australia’s two biggest supermarket chains.
In the end, both companies agreed to screen off gambling areas from kids. Coles honoured their promise. Woolworths fudged it.
He then went on to become an unpaid advisor to Senator Nick Xenophon, assisting across a range of policy areas but most heavily focusing on poker machine reform.
The Coles and Woolies “sights and sounds” campaign was followed up by activist group GetUp!, which engineered an EGM in 2012 to shame Woolworths into admitting it was Australia’s biggest pokies pusher with 13,000 machines.
Nick Xenophon and Tim Costello used that opportunity to do a little creative brand-damage by labelling Woolies “The Pokies People” in the eyes of many consumers.
Paul also ran a marginal seats campaign complete with giant billboards during the 2014 Victorian election, contributing to the defeat of the Napthine Government, but he was then equally appalled when Daniel Andrews held his election night party in a pokies venue.
In between times, Paul also found time to take on Clubs NSW with full page newspaper advertisements and he even featured in this 2010 Lateline story by Steve Cannane after joining 14 of the biggest pokies clubs in NSW to prove they exaggerate their community benefit claims.
Paul also did a lot of the early lobbying for reform through the courts, which ultimately led to the current Maurice Blackburn Federal Court case against Aristocrat and Crown Casino.
That case is scheduled to run for three weeks in Melbourne from September 11 and is aiming to prove legally that poker machines are a misleading and deceptive product, by design.
If Maurice Blackburn’s case is successful, it could lead to the kind of reform gambling-captured state and federal politicians have so far failed to provide in the country with the world’s largest per capita gambling losses.
For all of his incredible contribution, Paul rarely sought credit or recognition. He funded countless projects such as this study, by his great Monash University friend Charles Livingstone, on the tax impact on the Victorian government from introducing maximum $1 bets.
My campaign against Kevin Andrews in the Federal seat of Menzies last year only happened because Paul tipped in $10,000 to try and defeat someone who led the charge against the Wilkie-Gillard deal and cynically benefited from more than $50,000 in donations from Clubs NSW.
For a while there he even got the Tasmanian Liberals over the line on $1 bets, but Will Hodgman reneged on getting into office.
As he battled to keep his health, in recent times Paul has been working quietly behind the scenes to get his beloved St Kilda Football Club to ditch their poorly performing 83 pokies at Moorabbin. They should do it in his honour!
The tributes flowed thick and fast over the weekend after news of Paul’s passing on Friday.
Tim Costello told Crikey Paul was a “passionate and determined campaigner who put his own reputation and money on the line for the sake of others”.
As Nick Xenophon juggled his dual citizenship battles on Saturday, he took time out to tell Crikey Paul was: “a champion for pokies reform with a big heart and a bigger vision to expose and reduce the harm caused. His uniquely innovative approach will be deeply missed.”
Similarly, Hugh McLernon, the CEO of IMF, the world’s biggest listed litigation funder, said the following about his lifelong friend: “Paul didn’t just think about what is wrong with the world, he tried to do something about it. His work against poker machines and for Aboriginal communities made him a standout human being. I was glad to be one of his many friends.”
ABC Melbourne radio presenter Jon Faine interviewed Paul on numerous occasions and texted through the following comment whilst holidaying in Nova Scotia yesterday:
“People who put the interests of others ahead of themselves are rare … and even rarer to challenge some of the most powerful and lucrative interests in the entire economy.”
Another great friend was journalist, hard charging anti-pokies campaigner and former senior Nick Xenophon adviser Rohan Wenn, who told Crikey:
“Given his commercial success in life, I would often joke to Paul that he should really be lying on a beach somewhere sipping cocktails and ignoring the plight of others. Many in his position would. Quite a few in his position currently do. But Paul Bendat was not that kind of guy.”
The Bendat family migrated from California to Perth in 1966 and Paul is survived by his parents Jack and Eleanor, his sister Laurie, his wife Amanda and their three children. His funeral will be held in Perth on Friday.