The Spring Racing Carnival kicks off at Flemington with Derby Day tomorrow and one thing’s for sure: numerous politicians and journalists will make their way to the Tabcorp marquee inside the Birdcage to mingle with company bosses and enjoy the free food and booze.

However, with gambling on the nose and the backlash against horse slaughtering continuing, it will be interesting to see how many of our elected reps follow the lead of both Taylor Swift and Megan Gale by pulling out of the day, or at least declining to be spotted inside the Tabcorp marquee.

Unlike many other corporates who pay big dollars for a presence inside the Birdcage, Tabcorp prides itself on being fully transparent. You can see who is inside the marquee when you walk past. Numerous journalists are also invited, including the major corporate gossips from The AFR’s Rear Window, The Australian’s Margin Call, and CBD columnists for The Age/SMH.

If a big tobacco company tried something similar and you had dozens of politicians turning up at the British America Tobacco tent, there would be a huge backlash. But gambling is so politically normalised in Australia that Tabcorp has never had any blowback for blatantly rent-seeking with politicians at the races.

Indeed, only last Thursday the following exchange about political donations passed, un-remarked upon, at the Tabcorp AGM in Sydney. David Jackson from the Australian Shareholders’ Association said:

My question revolves around political donations. I’ve been told up until about 2016 I think it was, you actually published the value of those donations in the annual report. That hasn’t appeared since then, but it is available if you do a thorough search. You can find it in the corporate governance statement, I believe. It’s a question — why would you not show it in your annual report? Because it’s an important figure. You’re one of the largest donors of political donations in the country, I understand. It’s a very important figure to be showing. In fact it’s increased from 2016 by about 55% according to numbers I have here. My question is therefore would you commit to improving the transparency of publishing the amount of political donations in the annual report and by providing timely details of the break-up?

Tabcorp chair Paula Dwyer responded:

In respect of political donations, Tabcorp does actively participate in the formulation of regulation, because we’re a highly regulated business. I think our political donations are around the $250,000 mark for FY19. As you rightly point out, our policy is fully disclosed in our corporate governance statement and our donations are transparently disclosed to the AEC. We do not pay cash donations. We ensure that our donations are related to membership and participation in the formulation of regulation rather than in events and social occasions. The Board has detailed oversight of our political donations. It is a sensitive area. Our policy is to fairly balance it so it is bipartisan. It’s related to policy formulation rather than events.

This so-called balance doesn’t extend to the Greens or any crossbenchers — and one wonders how on earth the Tabcorp chair can claim that her company must make political donations to enable “participation in the formulation of regulation”.

What other company donates to the political parties which regulate them in order to explicitly help design that regulation?

This is not the first time Dwyer has been pointed in her language about political donations. Addressing a chairs panel at the 2017 ASA conference in Melbourne she said, “Political donations are part of the fabric of corporate life in Australia, and that’s the reality of it.

“That people operate within regulated industries and there’s a requirement to liaise with government and with political parties to represent the views of the company … to have access, to listen and to be heard is very important for companies operating in regulated environments.”

Dwyer suffered a 34.65% protest vote against her reelection last week. She has promised to depart before the 2021 AGM, by which time Tabcorp might get a chair who will completely ban political donations.

Or, even better, maybe the Liberal and Labor parties will mirror their noble policy of refusing donations from the tobacco industry and apply such a screen to all the gambling companies, which together extract $24 billion a year from Australian gamblers — the greatest per-capita losses of any country on earth.

But that’s all in the future. Over the next eight days at four different race meetings in Melbourne, Tabcorp will spend tens of thousands of dollars showering various politicians with blatant largesse as they pursue its unseemly influencing strategy.

And everyone will treat it as just a normal part of the festivities.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey