Powerful and well-connected crowd out anti-gambling campaigners

by | Jun 8, 2020 | Business, Revolving Doors Features

Political donations, a policy of hiring former politicians and a proportion of the population addicted to gambling. It’s an insidious mix and hard to counter, as campaigners for transparency and accountability in gaming policy continually butt heads against the powerful and well-connected. Luke Stacey reports. 

Australia is a global gambling epicentre, with Australians spending some 40% more per capita than their nearest rival. Meanwhile, the lack of scrutiny of the gaming industry, its political donations and its revolving door for politicians has for years limited effective action on gaming policy.

As H2 Gambling Capital, which collates data on the global gambling industry, noted in 2017: “Australians continue to gamble more than any other nation on a per-person basis, with the average adult spending US$990 which was [circa] 40% higher than their nearest rival.”

During 2017-18, Australians bet more than $242 billion, of which $181.4 billion ($9,419 per capita for Australians over the age of 18) was spent on gaming in casinos and on poker machines.

In 2018 the Grattan Institute released a report ‘Who’s in the room?’ , which showed how political donations spike depending on what is happening in the policy arena. As the report notes: “Donations from gambling bodies shift with policy debates.” Graph 1 is taken from the report, and reveals the significant rise in political donations in 2010-11, which coincided with the “[gaming] industry’s campaign against poker machine regulations” led by Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie.

The report also discussed James Packer’s recruitment of “former Labor Senator Mark Arbib and former ALP national secretary Karl Bitar to help secure Labor’s support” in his bid to build the Barangaroo Crown casino in 2012.

Moreover, the gaming industry has long had a policy of hiring politicians or others with political connections to help in its lobbying efforts. Such hiring practices are clearly seen as necessary by the gambling industry to protect their revenue.

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Consider the newly appointed CEO of ClubsNSW, Josh Landis. A former political advisor for the NSW Branch public sector from 2005 to 2007, he now heads an organisation that has capitalised on the NSW Government’s legalisation of poker machines since 1956. It is no coincidence that the biggest gambling state in the biggest gambling nation in the world also has such a long period of deregulation of gambling.

In conjunction with his role at ClubsNSW, Landis is also executive director of ClubsAustralia. As outlined here, ClubsAustralia is more or less a front for the former, making ClubsNSW the leading lobbyist against poker machine reform.

Landis’ concurrent roles at ClubsNSW and ClubsAustralia complement his inside political knowledge and influence, including manager for government relations from 2008 to 2009, and executive manager for policy and government from 2009 to 2014 at Clubs Australia.

The latter position proved effective in 2011, when Landis appeared before parliament’s joint select committee on gambling reform to oppose the pre-commitment gambling restriction scheme led by Andrew Wilkie and supported by then-prime minister Julia Gillard. InsideStory detailed the reasoning behind the failure of the Wilkie-Gillard campaign, showcasing the power of ClubsNSW to combat government reform.

For clubs, the central argument against reform is that by hindering the revenue stream from these addictive machines, they can no longer sustain their community-based donations. However, as Michael West Media has extensively reported, these donations are a drop in the ocean compared with the total revenue earned from their poker machines.

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Audited financial reports of the top 25 clubs in NSW between 2008 to 2017 show poker machine profits, community-based donations, and key management personnel (KMP) compensation. They reveal that “the NSW government has helped itself to approximately $2.9 billion (25%) of the top 25 clubs’ pokies profits”.

“In stark contrast, the clubs’ community-based donations equal $0.2 billion (2.2%).”

Casino magnate James Packer’s hiring practices bring into sharp focus the revolving doors in Australia’s gaming industry. Retired politicians who currently lobby for Packer include:

Helen Coonan

A former NSW Liberal Party senator elected in 1996, Coonan has been a director of Crown since February 2012, less than a year after retiring from the Senate. In keeping with the cosiness between government and lobbyists, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said in his address of Ms Coonan’s retirement: “Helen still has much to contribute to our society and I look forward to continuing to work with her inside the Liberal Party and more generally.”

Mark Arbib

A NSW Labor senator from 2007 to 2012, Arbib was appointed director of strategy and business for Packer’s investment company Consolidated Press Holdings (CPH) in 2012, the same year he left parliament. Arbib’s position at CPH allows him to lobby for Packer in matters relating to Crown. Since 2014 he has also enjoyed a seat on the board of the Packer Family Foundation.

Allegedly recruited by James Packer during MP Andrew Wilkie’s call for a parliamentary inquiry into Crown, Arbib’s inside knowledge and influence is something Mr Packer has valued in the past at a time when Arbib was still in parliament. The pair were spotted at the billionaire’s Ellerston property in 2010, a time when the Federal Government was being lobbied to slash licence fees for free-to-air commercial television networks. Meanwhile, Packer, with a 25% stake in Foxtel, was “lobbying for changes to anti-siphoning laws”.

Karl Bitar

The state secretary of the NSW’s ALP Branch from 2008 to 2011, Bitar assumed the role of executive vice president – group corporate affairs for Crown Resorts Ltd in 2013. A close friend of Mark Arbib from their time spent in grass-roots politics and, more importantly, Julia Gillard’s campaign director in the 2010 federal election. The role gave him direct involvement in and knowledge of Labor’s support for Andrew Wilkie’s pre-commitment scheme.

Packer’s influence extends well beyond his Crown recruitments. The Revolving Doors series will also investigate Packer’s connections to other retired politicians-turned-lobbyists including former Labor senator Stephen Conroy and former Coalition NSW premier Barry O’Farrell.

Politicians lured into the gaming industry brush shoulders with the many lobbyists who pass the other way. With Covid-19 restrictions easing across Australia, poker machines are flashing their predatory lights once more, meaning it is now more important than ever to put the focus on the revolving door this industry thrives on. If not for us to better understand the internal political and lobbying machinations, then for those people and their families who have suffered and continue to suffer from this most addictive and destructive of pastimes.

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Luke Stacey was a contributing researcher and editor for the Secret Rich List and Revolving Doors series on Michael West Media. Luke studied journalism at University of Technology, Sydney, has worked in the film industry and studied screenwriting at the New York Film Academy in New York. You can follow Luke on Twitter

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