Menu

On politics and gambling

Aug 13, 2019 • 15m50s

The refusal of the major parties to hold a parliamentary inquiry into Crown Casino speaks to a larger relationship between politics and the gambling lobby. It’s not just donations: Labor draws millions in profits from poker machines it owns.

play

 

On politics and gambling

56 • Aug 13, 2019

On politics and gambling

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

The refusal of the major parties to hold a parliamentary inquiry into Crown Casino speaks to the larger relationship between politics and gambling. The Labor Party, for instance, draws millions in profits from its own poker machines. Mike Seccombe on the enduring links between political parties and the gaming lobby.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Mike Seccombe, slightly personal question to start; have you ever been to the Randwick Labor Club in Sydney?

MIKE:

I have to say I haven't. I'm not a big habitué of pubs or clubs, but I've been to other clubs, you know, and they tend to be more or less the same. Some a little more swish than others, generally with lines of poker machines around the places and carpet on the floor that doesn't show the stains. I can't give you any specific insights into the Randwick Labor Club but it's really just indicative of the Labor Party's interest in poker machines.

ELIZABETH:

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

MIKE:

Apart from the Randwick Labor Club, Labor owns and operates poker machines in various places. In the ACT alone, Labor owns and operates 489 electronic gaming machines, which net an average of $50,000 dollars per machine, per year. I'm not sure what that works out to but a lot of money.

ELIZABETH:

I did the maths…

MIKE:

Did you?

ELIZABETH:

$24.7 million dollars a year.

MIKE:

Wow. Yeah. Well that’s…. That's a significant contribution to party coffers isn't it?

ELIZABETH:

I mean, that's just revenue from machines that the Labor Party operates through these venues and only in the ACT. What do we know about direct donations?

MIKE:

Well, donations is another matter. For a start, $2.7 million dollars was donated to both sides of politics, roughly 50/50 by Crown Casino's alone between 1998 and 2018. In more recent years, it's been split a little more towards the coalition but they give to both sides. And of course they're just one of the gambling operators. People like pubs and clubs in New South Wales give a whole lot more. And then, apart from direct donations from those entities themselves, you get donations from entities associated with gambling interests to entities associated with political parties, you know, various slush funds for want of a better term that collect on behalf of political parties.

So when you look at that, in more or less the same period as those $2.7 million dollars were donated, Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd, which is a company connected to Crown via James Packer who had significant interests in both, directed another $200,000 to the Millennium Forum which is an entity associated with the NSW Liberal Party and that made up 75 per cent of its declared donations for that period.

And James Packer's mother Roslyn is also a significant donor to the federal Liberal Party. In 2012 she declared almost $600,000, which went to the Federal Office of the party which was the largest donation received by any party for that period and more than triple the amount given by the next largest donor.

ELIZABETH:

And yet, this is all completely legal?

MIKE:

Well this is, yeah. This points to part of the problem here which is the regime we have for political donations.

ELIZABETH:

And what do you think the impact of these donations is?

MIKE:

They have a huge impact. One very good example, I think, is if we go back to 2010, which was the last time the federal government looked seriously at any kind of gaming reform and if you remember the 2010 parliament was a hung parliament. So neither side had a majority. So Julia Gillard was negotiating on behalf of labor with various crossbenchers to try and get their support so she could govern, and as part of that she struck a deal with Andrew Wilkie, an independent from Tasmania and a fierce opponent of gambling interests and Wilkie said that he would give his support in return for certain gambling reforms. So Gillard pledged to introduce federal legislation requiring a mandatory pre-commitment scheme for gamblers and a one dollar maximum bet for all poker machines.

Anyway, gambling interests were clearly upset with this. They responded with a huge public campaign. Clubs NSW, which spearheaded this, spent just under a million dollars in 2010/11 and almost three point five million dollars the following year.

ELIZABETH:

So it more than tripled...

MIKE:

That's right, it's an absolutely enormous amount of spending. And at the same time, of course, donations continued to flow to individual politicians and this is very interesting because on the Labor side, for example, we know because they were itemised by name that Joel Fitzgibbon, Chris Bowen and various others got donations. This was a very NRA-like tactic which is that you give funds to key individuals and let it be known that you have given funds to those key individuals because it sort of delivers a message, I guess that support is coming and support could be cut off.

ELIZABETH:

And with all that added spending, did the gaming lobby get what they wanted?

[Music starts]

MIKE:

Well, Labor eventually betrayed Wilkie and watered down the reforms. There was a lot of internal dissent. And then later after they lost government, they voted with the Abbott government to kill off the Wilkie reforms entirely, so they're gone.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

[Advertisement]

ELIZABETH:

Mike, we're talking about the tight relationship between the gaming industry and politicians, in part because of allegations raised against Crown Casino. What happened in Parliament a couple of weeks ago?

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 1:

“The member for Clarke…”

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 2:

“Thank you Speaker. I seek leave to move a motion relating to the establishment of a joint select committee into Crown Casino in the terms circulated in my name…”

MIKE:

Well it was during the last sitting week, and I think if ever there was a perfect visual representation of the political power of the gaming lobby it was the photographs that came out of the House of Representative chamber that day, which showed five members of the House lined up in a row on one side of the chamber voting to establish a very powerful joint parliamentary committee to investigate the detailed and numerous allegations of corruption and criminality by Crown Casino.

Archival tape — Unidentified Man 2:

“Allegations of money laundering; allegations of sweetheart deals with consular officials to facilitate hundreds of visas for Crown patrons every year; and allegations of the moonlighting of Australian officials working for foreign nationals and crime figures…”

MIKE:

Five people, all of them independents, and the only ones in the House who were not in some way or other beneficiaries of gaming industry largesse. They were a disparate group. It was the Greens Adam Bandt from inner Melbourne. It was rural independent Helen Haines. Zali Steggall, the woman who toppled Tony Abbott on Sydney's very affluent northern beaches. Wilkie, the Tasmanian anti-corruption campaigner and Rebekah Sharkey from the centre Alliance in South Australia. So none of them obviously associated in any way with the major parties. And of course on the other side of the chamber lined up against these five were 127 members of Labor and the conservative parties.

ELIZABETH:

So what is it that these five were voting to see happen?

MIKE:

Well they’d put quite a detailed motion calling for the establishment of a joint parliamentary committee, so that both Senate and House of Reps, that would have six members of labor, six members from the coalition side and four independents on it. So sixteen in all. And they set out various matters to be investigated. Many of them allegations that came out of that Nine Media Report on on Crown.

So, to quote from it, they called for investigations into Crown's links to and I'm quoting “organised crime, money laundering, tampering with poker machines, domestic violence, drug trafficking on Crown property, as well as alleged improper activity by consular officials and other state and federal officials and agencies”.

Now I should say that Crown has very strongly rejected all claims of wrongdoing. So that was that was the bit that related directly to Crown and only to Crown. But there was another part in the terms of reference which I suggest gives some clue as to why everyone else was lined up against those independents, and that was number 1(c) which called for the committee to investigate it, quoting again, “the relationship between Crown Casino and governments including the role of former members of state and federal parliaments”. You could see why that would cause anxiety.

ELIZABETH:

What do think that anxiety is?

MIKE:

Well that anxiety is that there is a revolving door between politics and gambling interests. Just in the case of Crown, we have Helen Coonan, a former senior Liberal, on the board; she was a minister in the Howard government. And then we have senior Labor figures like Mark Arbib, Karl Bitar, a former senior public servant Jane Holton, best known for her role in the children overboard affair, is on the board of Crown. So there are a lot of links.

ELIZABETH:

And then on top of that there are these allegations that Home Affairs or the Department Immigration may be providing special treatment to some of the high rolling gamblers that come to spend money at Crown.

MIKE:

Well that's right. And the suggestion also that some members of parliament, not named at this stage, but at least a couple of members of parliament were actively lobbying home affairs to speed things up and get them in the door quicker.

ELIZABETH:

So that parliamentary inquiry was brutally defeated as we know. Five to 127. But what was it that the majority proposed in its place?

MIKE:

Well, Christian Porter attempted to head it off by announcing a referral of the allegations to a small body that most of us would never have heard of, called the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity. The commission was set up specifically to counter corruption in law enforcement agencies. So, you know, not gambling companies, certainly not politicians, their staff or bureaucrats. In fact, it's specifically incapable of investigating politicians. So, clearly there's been a lot of criticism of this decision suggesting that this was deliberately set up in a way that would make sure no fingers were pointed at politicians.

There was a very good piece by a former Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford, who has been an insider in Canberra for decades. In his piece he did point out that yes, this body ACLI, as the acronym goes, has enormous powers of bugging and surveillance and compulsory questioning and what have you, but it's never held a public hearing. Its reports were, quoting him, “sanitised and devoid of detail”, that it had only ever a court small fry. And that in general it was considered to be well below the quality and quantity of malfeasance, I guess, picked up by anti-corruption bodies in other jurisdictions throughout the world.

Waterford made the point too that it doesn't go to stewardship, it doesn't go to the exercise of power for improper purposes. It goes strictly to matters of illegality. Andrew Wilkie raised a lot of eyebrows when he stood up in the Parliament and said, you know, I believe there are corrupt people in this chamber and there was outrage about that. But he makes the point that he doesn't know if there are people who have actually broken the law. But he suggests that there's moral corruption involved here, in that this is a mutually beneficial arrangement between politicians and gambling interests. And there's no real interest in reforming it.

ELIZABETH:

And it doesn't get to something that the electorate seems to be calling out for which is not only through the Integrity Commission but in general, that we need a body that will help us codify standards of what we expect from our public representatives that go beyond just sticking to the rule of law.

MIKE:

Yeah well this is an interesting thing isn't it. When you survey public opinion on these subjects, first of all, a lot of people are in favour of gambling reform. Second of all, people are very strongly in favour of having some kind of strong federal body, as we have in I think now all states, some kind of anti-corruption body to look into these issues. And there are big stakes here. I mean, in the case of gambling, Australians are now by most assessments the biggest gamblers, and the biggest losers I might add, in the world. We bet between us somewhere in the order of $208 billion a year, almost two thirds of which goes through poker machines. 80 per cent of the losses are racked up by 20 per cent of gamblers. Problem gamblers at the bulk of those, there's about 115,000 of those according to the Productivity Commission. And another way in which political parties, the major political parties of course are dependent on the gambling lobby, is not just for donations to the parties but for government revenue. They collectively pull in about six billion dollars a year through taxes on various forms of gambling. So, you know, they're balancing their budgets on the basis of this.

ELIZABETH:

And those 115,000 you mentioned the problem gamblers, do you think that that's who those five MPs are lining up to protect in the last sitting week?

MIKE:

Well, indirectly perhaps. I mean, this was a specific call for an investigation of Crown. It was not a private member's bill proposing reform of the system of regulation of gambling generally, so it's only indirect. But I think more pointedly, it indicates the need for a couple of things; it indicates the need for A) gambling reform, B), probably some kind of whistleblower reform so that we can we can find out more of what's going on because clearly the allegations from Crown wouldn't have come out but for whistleblowers. And C), and probably most importantly, it points to a need for reform in the way political donations operate in this country, because that's really at the root of it. You know, it's money that opens the doors for these people.

ELIZABETH:

Thanks Mike.

MIKE:

Okay Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH:

OK bye

MIKE:

Cheers. Bye.

[Advertisement]

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Nine Entertainment yesterday made an offer of almost $114m to purchase remaining shares in Macquarie Media, which includes 2GB in Sydney, 3AW in Melbourne and Macquarie Sports Radio. Nine's chief executive has said that if successful, he wouldn't make significant changes to the 2GB announcer lineup, which includes the voices of Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. If the bid goes ahead, Nine Entertainment will become the biggest local media company in the country, on par with the size and influence of Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

And ahead of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has called on Australia to reduce its coal-based emissions and take more action on climate change. Scott Morrison will travel to Tuvalu on Wednesday, where it is expected that he will come under increased pressure from regional neighbours. It will be the first time a Fijian prime minister has attended the summit since the country was suspended in 2009 for refusing to call elections. Banimarama has not attended since then, despite Fiji being reinstated into the forum in 2014, saying that he felt Australia and New Zealand exerted too much influence over the talks.

This is 7am. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Wednesday.

[Theme ends]

The refusal of the major parties to hold a parliamentary inquiry into Crown Casino speaks to a larger and more pervasive relationship between politics and gambling. The Labor Party, for instance, draws millions in profits from its own poker machines. Mike Seccombe on the links between political parties and the gaming lobby.

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe.

Background reading:

Political parties cash in on gambling largesse in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

Listen and subscribe in your favourite podcast app (it's free).

Apple podcasts Google podcasts Listen on Spotify

Share:

7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

Tags

gambling integrity donations politics reform crown




Subscribe to hear every episode in your favourite podcast app:
Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsSpotify

00:00
15:50
56: On politics and gambling