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gambling royal commission
Protesters from GetUp. (Image: AAP/David Moir)

Bernard Keane was spot on in Crikey earlier this week when he hammered Australia’s gambling industry for its record-breaking levels of political donations in 2017-18 — particularly from the pokies-dominated Australian Hotels Association, whose biggest member is Woolworths.

And as we grapple with the recommendations from the Hayne royal commission into financial services misconduct, these latest examples of gambling industry influence-pedalling raise the legitimate question: should we have a royal commission into Australia’s $24 billion-a-year gambling industry?

After all, Australia has just been through its busiest burst of royal commissions in history, with no less than 10 announced or completed over the past six years:

Compare that with the royal commission drought for the six years before that between when the AWB report was delivered on November 24, 2006, and when Julia Gillard announced the child abuse royal commission on November 12, 2012.

All we had during that period was the Victorian bushfires royal commission in 2009-10 and the 2008 equine influenza probe, although that wasn’t strictly a royal commission but more an independent commission of inquiry.

Following Hayne, royal commissions are increasingly well regarded by Australians. It is hard to argue with the overall positive contribution that the family violence, child abuse and financial services royal commissions have added to Australia.

Indeed, if you want to keep the banks honest, parliament should legislate for a $100 million financial services royal commission every seven years, with the next kicking off in 2026.

Putting long-term banker bonus payments into a seven-year pool, which only paid out after each royal commission, would be another excellent reform if you really wanted to tackle the culture of greed driven by financial incentives.

A one-off gambling industry royal commission focusing on customer rip-offs would probably strike some seriously shocking material given the enormous harm caused by the industry, which is soaking a world-record $24 billion a year from Australians.

While the gigantic Australian financial services industry has clearly been ripping off huge numbers of Australians, at least it is primarily owned by millions of ordinary Australian shareholders and Australian-based super funds or institutional investors.

The gambling industry is very different because it is dominated by ruthless multi-nationals such as Canada’s The Stars Group (owner of BetEasy), UK firm GVC (parent of Ladbrokes) and Ireland’s Paddy Power Betfair (owner of Sportsbet), along with three local billionaires: James Packer, Bruce Mathieson and Len Ainsworth.

Throw in a handful of public companies like Tabcorp, Woolworths, Aristocrat, Star Entertainment, Crown Resorts and Ainsworth Gaming Technology and you’ve got the gambling industry pretty much covered — although don’t ignore the 5000 clubs and pubs with pokies strewn across all corners of the country, with the exception of Western Australia.

The gambling industry is notorious for forum shopping to get favourable licensing or planning deals, so the anti-gambling movement doesn’t care whether it’s the feds or one of the eight state or territory governments who fire the starter’s gun.

A joint federal-state royal commission would be ideal, with NSW the logical partner given it hasn’t had a royal commission since Bob Carr’s effort on corrupt cops in the 1990s and it also has the bigger per capita gambling spend in Australia thanks to the $7 billion a year its citizens drop on the pokies.

As an example of gambling industry forum shopping, rather than Crown Resorts dealing with City of Melbourne to get approval for its proposed $1.75 billion skyscraper in Melbourne, James Packer went straight to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, who ordered his planning minister to approve the deal.

With the planning scheme amendment lapsing from inaction on March 2, Crown has asked for an extension as The Age reported yesterday.

I have been reliably informed that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews attended at least two private meetings with James Packer at Crown before approval to build the largest building in the southern hemisphere was granted.

The 2017-18 donations figures revealed last Friday also disclose that Crown donated $35,000 to the Victorian ALP in 2017-18. How much will they donate if approval is granted?

These are the sorts of issues which should be examined in a royal commission into Australia’s gambling industry, particularly after the revelation that the industry donated at least $3 million to political parties in 2017-18, which was a record.

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

Peter Fray

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