Ever since the death of his father in 2005, James Packer has single-handedly controlled Australia’s biggest gambling empire. Over that time, he’s attended 10 Crown AGMs, which usually alternate between Perth and Melbourne.

At 10am in Melbourne tomorrow, the most widely anticipated Crown Resorts AGM will kick off. Packer won’t be chairing the meeting, but will be open to questions when shareholders deliberate on his re-election to the board.

If the past is any guide, tomorrow will be a tightly controlled affair. No webcast, no video, no audio and — as The Australian Financial Review’s Julie-anne Sprague noted on Twitter this morning — last year they even tried to make the media stand to one side in a roped off area before the meeting.

I’m not aware of the billionaire ever mingling with his shareholders before or after an AGM, or even being challenged at the AGM by someone who has been harmed by a gambling addiction.

Tomorrow in Melbourne, this could all change when Tim Costello leads an Alliance for Gambling Reform delegation into the Crown Resorts AGM for a solid interrogation of the board.

What would the detached billionaire say if Mark Robley, the pokies addict featured so dramatically on 7.30 on Monday night, made a surprise appearance?

These are interesting times for gambling regulation in Victoria and both state MPs and the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR) have been invited to come along and listen to the debate.

The supposedly caring Andrews Labor government has recently introduced new legislation, which will lock in another $70 billion in pokies losses through until 2042. These losses will be concentrated in the poorer parts of Melbourne, largely represented by Labor MPs who, thus far, have not revolted against the “more of the same” approach driven by the hopelessly conflicted and addicted Victorian Treasury.

The legislation has been listed for debate at the top of the notice paper when state parliament resumes next Tuesday and the Coalition is already negotiating amendments to soften the revenue grab on pokies-dependent country clubs.

With pokies on the nose and the Greens strongly opposing the proposed new 20-year licences, it is unlikely the Andrews government will try to pass the legislation before the crucial November 18 Northcote byelection.

The Greens are tipped to win Northcote, plunging Labor into a minority-government situation. Pokies policy is one of the key policy differences that the progressive inner-city voters are contemplating in a byelection that is not being contested by the Liberals.

The Alliance for Gambling Reform has been meeting with MPs pushing for a delay to the legislation so a comprehensive parliamentary inquiry into Victorian gaming regulation can be conducted.

To that end, a “Women Against Pokies” rally is being held on the steps of Parliament next Tuesday, pointing out the connection between gambling harm and family violence, plus the long history of silent suffering by women in a male-dominated industry.

Daniel Andrews cites family violence reforms as one of his proudest achievements. But it is the three hard men of the Victorian government — Premier Daniel Andrews, Treasurer Tim Pallas and Attorney-General Martin Pakula — who are ignoring the evidence and trying to drive through the proposed continuation of state-sponsored pokies abuse.

They’ve been meeting with lots of industry blokes but are yet to engage over the legislation with any victims of the industry in a country with the highest rates of per capita gambling losses in the world. Australians lose $23 billion a year on the punt and states pocket about $6 billion of this.

As for Crown, the past week has highlighted how poorly regulated Australia’s biggest casino has become. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Victorian Auditor-General only completed a damming audit in February 2017, which concluded that: “VCGLR is not able to demonstrate that its casino supervision is efficient or effective as is required.”

The VCGLR is currently conducting the five-yearly review of the Crown Melbourne licence, although it is a little constrained in what it can do by the previous Liberal government’s licence extension deal with Crown in 2014.

Victoria has a wider opportunity to improve gambling regulation and reduce harm, given the expiry of the current 10-year poker machine licences in 2022. States like New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia gave their venues perpetual pokies licences.

A decent Victorian parliamentary inquiry might very well conclude that Australia needs a national gambling regulator given that the states have proven to be hopelessly conflicted, addicted and compromised over the years. At the very least, a national ombudsman would make sense, as applies in industries such as financial services, telecommunications, water and energy.

This could be one for Australia’s blokey treasurers to discuss when they all get together on Friday for a meeting of the Council on Federal Financial Relations.

*Stephen Mayne works part-time for The Alliance for Gambling Reform and was not paid for this item.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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