Alan Jones Opera House

In 2012, lawyer Geoff Watson likened disgraced NSW politician Eddie Obeid and his ilk to the infamous Rum Corps, a group of soldiers in the early colony who ran the liquor trade and used it to buy power. This “whatever it takes” attitude has been revealed by the corruption watchdog, the Independent Commission Against Corruption, to be endemic to both sides of politics in NSW, where it has long been said that we get the “finest politicians money can buy”.  

The current dispute between the state government and the Sydney Opera House over the outrageous edict to advertise the Everest horse race on its sails is peak NSW. Here, the gambling lobby, which pours millions of dollars into the state’s coffers every year, is simply looking for a return on its money.

On this occasion, it has used one of its favourite mouthpieces, elderly shock-jock Alan Jones, to fire the first shots. Last Friday he behaved like a toddler on speed, shrieking at Opera House CEO Louise Herron that he would have her sacked for refusing to run the ad after Herron, displaying the unnatural calm of a bomb disposal expert, said that the Opera House wasn’t a billboard.

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Just an hour later, in a statement which many have likened to Tony Abbott’s Prince Philip moment, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian buckled, announcing that the ads had to run — a decision that has been backed up by PM Scott Morrison.

It’s just another example of business as usual in this state. Racing NSW and the rest of the gambling lobby have long held influence in NSW because they give the government so much money. According to Australian Gambling Statistics, the NSW government received $96 million in revenue from racing activities in 2016-17.

Over the past 25 years, this industry, which includes 142 thoroughbred racing clubs and 38 sports betting agencies, has paid the NSW government just over $5 billion. Taxes are paid on gross turnover, giving the government an incentive to allow as much gambling as possible — and isn’t that a win/win?

The only loser, of course, is the general public. Australians are the biggest (per capita) gamblers in the world, losing about $1000 a head per year on all forms of betting. Total turnover in NSW for the racing industry in 2016-17 was $6.2 billion, spent at the bookmakers and the TAB. Turnover for the whole gambling sector in NSW, which includes pokies and sports betting, was $89.8 billion in 2016-17. While it’s often said that gambling is a way of redistributing money from the poor to the rich, that’s not the whole picture — the poor’s money also ends up with the government.

The gambling sector also strengthens its power by being a major donor to both major political parties. The Alliance for Gambling Reform has calculated that gambling interests donated $1.5 million to the major parties in 2016-17. Dr Charles Livingstone and Maggie Johnson from the Gambling and Social Determinants Unit at Monash University expressed concern last year about the influence of the gambling sector. In their submission to the Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations in October 2017, the researchers said the Australian gambling industry had “utilised political donations as a mechanism to exert considerable influence over relevant public policy”.

It’s ironic that The Daily Telegraph, in an attempt to fuel the culture wars, is portraying the current fight as a contest between the Aussie battler who loves a punt and the silvertails at the opera. In fact it’s the reverse: racing, dominated by multi-millionaire horse owners like Jones is “the sport of kings” while the Opera House, thanks to generous philanthropy and inclusive ticket policies, welcomes more than eight million visitors a year from all walks of life.

But this is not really about the horses, it’s the story of a panicked state government — behind in the polls — bending the knee to a shock-jock in exchange for favourable coverage. This time, however, Gladys has made a huge mistake: Jones’ audience (old, white and conservative) will vote for the Liberal Party anyway, and she is burning up political capital over something that will not win her any seats.

Tensions are running high and Sydneysiders are organising a protest at the Opera House on Tuesday night when the advertisement is planned to go ahead. While Jemma Rix sings her heart out in Evita inside the house, thousands will be outside, performing Les Misérables by storming the barricades. Stay tuned for Act two.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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