Roger Corbett

As if Roger Corbett doesn’t have enough on his plate managing all those controversial practices as chairman of Australia’s biggest pokies pusher, ALH, the AFR reports today that the 76-year-old former Woolworths CEO is putting his hand up to chair Tony Abbott’s Federal Electorate Conference (FEC) in the normally safe seat of Warringah.

In what appears to be a cross-factional arrangement, Corbett is being put up as the neutral compromise chair replacing long serving Abbott loyalist Walter Villatora. The deal being that Abbott was not challenged for preselection in exchange for supporting a new FEC chair whose job will be to oversee Abbott’s departure down the track.

After all the wrecking of the Turnbull prime ministership, getting Tony Abbott re-elected in Warringah won’t be easy. It will be Corbett’s job to lead the fundraising push as well as help steer the local campaign.

But how will he find the time to do all that when he is also:

  • Chair of Woolworths-controlled pokies giant ALH, where he has just led an “independent” investigation into controversial spying allegations aired by Andrew Wilkie.
  • Chair of ASX-listed Mayne Pharma, where he serves alongside pokies billionaire Bruce Mathieson. Corbett was re-elected for a new three year term at last year’s AGM with 97.5% of the vote in favour.
  • Chair of ASX-listed Molopo Energy after a successful shareholder board coup in May this year.

Remarkably, Corbett told Fairfax’s David Crowe yesterday, “I’m not as busy as I used to be, I have some time to help in that regard and I’m happy to do so. My only intent is to give the party some support where it’s needed.”

The Australian Shareholders Association has a five point rule for workload where a chair position equates to two points, so if Corbett gets up on Friday night he’ll be sitting on eight points with four chairing roles. That’s called being overloaded.

As the 100 delegates gather to vote for the FEC role on Friday night, there may be questions around who is more controversial: Abbott or Corbett. The latter is arguably Australia’s leading pokies king, having racked up almost $20 billion in pokies losses since he put together the Woolworths joint venture with pokies billionaire Bruce Mathieson after a chance meeting at the Sydney Olympics.

Long time anti-pokies campaigner Tim Costello certainly came out swinging about the proposed appointment of Corbett this morning. Ironically, Friday’s night’s gathering is being held at the Balgowlah RSL, a pokies joint with an all male board that last year ripped $7 million from the punters who gambled on their poker machines.

However, as investigative reporter Michael West reports this morning, pokies losses in Abbott’s well-to-do seat are tiny compared with the damage caused in the poorer parts of Sydney.

Apart from the vote, the other highlight of Friday night’s FEC meeting will be the element known as the “endorsement meeting” where delegates will formally back their man to contest Warringah yet again. Abbott will give a speech accepting the nomination, although there is talk of some disgruntled local Liberals voting for the alternative empty chair candidate in an attempt to reopen the preselection.

It was only six weeks ago when the Labor candidate for Warringah, Dean Harris, launched his campaign at the same venue. Watch his impressive speech here.

Abbott suffered a 9.2% percentage point slump in his primary vote, down to 51.65%, in 2016, and if that happens again next year, he’ll likely lose his seat. It will be interesting to see if any Turnbull forces come out and donate to the Labor or Green candidates, or any prospective independent.

There are about 500 Liberal Party members in Warringah spread across almost 20 branches, the biggest being Mosman.

The AGM processes will involve the appointment of 10 office bearers, plus one additional conference member from each branch, so Corbett will find himself overseeing a board of about 20. The office bearers in each branch get a vote on the preselection, so there will be around 100 delegates in attendance on Friday night, plus an expected large number of observers as any Liberal Party member in NSW is entitled to attend.

Corbett lives in Balmoral and has been a long-time below the radar Liberal Party member in Abbott’s seat, even during his time as a Reserve Bank director and chairman of Fairfax, a role he held from 2009 until 2015.

Stephen Mayne works part time for The Alliance for Gambling Reform and is a director of the Australian Shareholders’ Association and was not paid for this item.