Action from ALP on pokies, gambling, more long-shot than sure bet

by Stephen Mayne | Aug 18, 2023 | Business, Latest Posts

Labor has a long history of profiting from poker machines. Will they move a motion at the ALP National Conference to address gambling harm? Veteran anti-pokies crusader, journalist Stephen Mayne reports.

The three day ALP national conference kicked off in Brisbane yesterday and the two issues getting traction in the media in terms of grass roots activism are opposition to the AUKUS submarines deal and changes to Labor’s position on Palestine.

There’s a third issue which should be getting a run on this threadbare agenda and to make it easy for the 400 voting delegates who have flown in from all over the country, here is the text of motion which should be moved without notice from the floor and then comfortably passed.

That the 2024 Australian Labor Party National Conference:

# 1. authorises and mandates the divestment of the gambling assets of the Canberra Labor Club and The Randwick Labor Club by no later than the commencement of the next National Conference, scheduled for 2026, and thereafter prohibits any further party participation or investment in the gambling industry.

# 2. Agrees that the Federal party and no affiliated state or territory division is authorised to receive donations from any gambling-industry entity after June 30, 2024, mirroring the party’s across the board ban on tobacco industry donations.

# 3. Inserts the following new clause in the party’s Federal constitution:

“Commencing January 1, 2027, no division of the ALP is permitted to operate brothels, tobacco manufacturing facilities, cannabis plantations, battery hen farms, armaments manufacturing plants or gambling venues.”

Stooping to suburban casinos

Surely, there are a couple of brave ALP Conference national delegates prepared to give this one a go from the floor on Saturday when the agenda moves to constitutional reform of the party. There is no other major political party in the world that stoops to suburban casino clubs to fund their political operations. 

The detail of this pokies history is that the NSW Labor Party remains directly invested in the gambling industry, having built up net assets worth $45 million in the Randwick Labor Club as of 2021 (see page 7 of 2021 annual report), a multi-venue pokies operator 100% owned by the NSW branch.

And Anthony Albanese had no qualms about officially launching the Mercure Belconnen in February 2020, a $40 million 4-star hotel that the Canberra Labor Club was able to build off the profits from its four different pokies venues in the nation’s capital. Gough Whitlam opened the Canberra Labor Club’s Belconnen chapter in 1979.

The 2020-21 Canberra Labor Club’s annual report states on page 27 that it had $81 million in total assets, but the net asset position was only $41.7 million because it borrowed heavily from the ANZ Bank to build the Mercure Belconnen.

Battle of the Canberra Labor Club

I’ve tried to join the Canberra Labor Club three times over the past 6 years but keep getting sent refund cheques in the mail with no explanation as to why the board has rejected the application.  The last two attempts in 2022 and 2023 were after spending a combined $1800 staying at their Mercure Hotel whilst attending the big Australian Local Government Association National General Assembly in Canberra as a City of Manningham councillor in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

The key card to access the Mercure Belconnen hotel room has a Labor Club membership card on the back and you have to walk past the enormous pokies to access the breakfast buffet.

After not misbehaving during both stays, it is perplexing why the membership application keeps getting rejected. Clearly these directors don’t want to answer some hard questions at their AGM or face a potential board tilt from a member interested in reducing gambling harm. Should an institution called the Labor Club really be embarking on Republican-style voter suppression in 2023?

Unions and pokies

Labor’s Canberra ties to the pokies go bar deeper than their own club. Heck, the CFMMEU even has a big pokies venue in the Canberra suburb of Dickson, called The Tradies. Its 2021-22 annual report features an all male 8 person board which delivered a very healthy $4.3 million profit on revenue of $23.4 million. Canberra’s NSW-style $10 maximum bet pokies has allowed the CFMMEU to build up audited net assets of $62.4 million by June 30, 2022, with no debt to speak of.

Coincidentally, the CFMMEU is easily the most powerful faction in the ACT Labor branch, partly because it is so cashed up from its enormous Dickson pokies venue which has taken more than $100 million from gamblers over the past 15 years.

The CFMMEU organised a march on the National Conference yesterday pushing housing affordability, climate concerns and worker safety, but they had nothing to say on gambling reform and will no doubt use their factional clout to resist any pokies divestment push, given their own conflict of interest.

And speaking of gambling, long term campaigner Tim Costello participated in a fringe event on foreign aid at the National Conference in Brisbane yesterday where he also pressed the flesh on gambling reform.

Costello meets Albo and Dutton

Costello reportedly met with both Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton in Canberra two weeks ago on the question of how far the government should go with restricting gambling advertising.

The answer was partially provided by Sportsbet’s Dublin-based parent company Flutter Entertainment which released its first half result last Wednesday and disclosed that it had cranked up its Australian advertising in the six months to 30 June through an “additional marketing spend of £10m ($A19.5m) to defend our leadership position”.

The results showed that Sportsbet’s average monthly players had increased by another 7 per cent to a record 1.066 million Australians and they collectively lost $1.17 billion in just six months. In annualised terms, that means 1.066 million Australians are losing $2.34 billion a year to Sportsbet or some $2,200 each.

How does this happen? Advertising certainly helps as Flutter’s stockmarket release talked up Sportbet’s “Same Game Multi” and “Bet With Mates” offering. If you’re sick of your kids hearing about this, here’s why:

“Sales and marketing increased by 23% (to $124.6 million in 6 months) to defend our leadership position in the market and form key strategic partnerships with a number of local sports and racing organisations,” Flutter said.

Go on Albo, roll the dice on this one and support a full tobacco-style advertising ban, as a cross-party Parliamentary committee chaired by Federal Labor MP Peta Murphy recently recommended.

Indeed, Murphy backed this up with a strongly worded motion against online gambling at the Labor National Conference, but wasn’t prepared to venture into the delicate territory of Labor’s own predatory gambling business.

One of the challenges for gambling reformers is the capture the industry has over key institutions. For instance, if the Catholic Church, the RSL and the Labor Party had big investments in the tobacco industry comparable to their exposure to the pokies industry, do you think Australia would have the world’s toughest tobacco laws and the lowest smoking rates?

Sydney Uni compromised

The University of Sydney is coming under pressure this week over its long term acceptance of gambling industry funding and the Labor Party really should be facing similar scrutiny during its National Conference.

The Canberra clubs in particular can only be divested by way of  resolution at national conference and with the next one not scheduled for 3 years, tomorrow (Saturday) is the last opportunity for some brave delegates to end all this scripted backroom agreed debate and votes and instead deliver some passion from the heart.

Over in WA, pokies are banned everywhere accept the casino. There must be some WA delegates who can see the madness of the Federal party being so heavily invested in pokies, an industry they are meant to be regulating not running.

All those battlers in Labor seats who make up the majority of the $15 billion a year that Australians lose on the pokies deserve nothing less from the party that is meant to protect not prey on them.

Pokies: the Rise of the Machines

Stephen Mayne is a Walkley Award winning journalist, shareholder activist, former City of Melbourne councillor, former spindoctor for Jeff Kennett’s Victorian Liberal Government, current City of Manningham councillor, founder of Crikey and publisher of The Mayne Report.

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