Report inaction shows government cowed by pokie industry

The report recommended banning a feature known as “losses disguised as wins”. Photo: AFRIn October last year representatives of one of ‘s most powerful gambling lobby groups, Clubs NSW, had lunch with a group of Nationals including then-senator Fiona Nash and the party’s candidate for the seat of Orange, Scott Barrett.
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Precisely who from Clubs NSW attended is unclear, but the organisation described the event as a “cruise” in its declaration to the electoral commission for which it coughed up $990 to the state Nationals.

They didn’t quite know it at the time, but the NSW Nationals were about to be plunged into crisis.

Within weeks they would lose the Orange byelection to the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, precipitating the toppling of their leader Troy Grant by John Barilaro.

In April this year Clubs NSW was again rubbing shoulders with the Nationals at the party’s conference in Broken Hill, at which it handed over $4125.

For Clubs NSW the donations were modest compared with the cash it has poured into major party coffers over the years.

Records show that since the beginning of 2010 the organisation has contributed more than $420,000 to the Liberals, Nationals and Labor for the purposes of state election campaigns.

This included more than $370,000 before donations caps of $5000 per political party per year were introduced from the end of 2010.

Clubs NSW and its member organisations are an anomaly within the state political donations regime, where businesses involved in gambling, alcohol and tobacco are prohibited from contributing.

When the bans were introduced in November 2010 by the then Labor government with support of the Greens, registered clubs were exempt because they are non-profit organisations.

Yet as everyone knows the big registered clubs these days resemble mini-casinos given their hundreds of poker machines and electronic blackjack and roulette games.

All this adds context to revelations this week that Grant – as gaming minister – sat on a report into gambling harm commissioned from the University of Sydney, despite being urged by his own department to release it “as soon as possible”.

The report, which the NSW government eventually sat on for nearly two years, is largely uncontroversial but for one aspect: it recommends banning in all future machines in NSW a feature known as “losses disguised as wins”, which is blamed by researchers for fuelling addiction.

Losses disguised as wins refers to celebratory music and graphics played when a player wins some money back, despite the amount being less than was staked.

Monash University researcher Charles Livingstone says the feature is already banned in Tasmania and Queensland.

At the time Grant was being urged to release the report mid-last year, the feature was central to a federal court case in which James Packer’s Crown casino company and pokie manufacturer Aristocrat were fighting allegations it is misleading and deceptive.

A verdict is due early next year and given their determination to fight the matter in court, a ban would be a significant blow to the pokies industry.

Grant – who is now police minister – has conveniently flick-passed commentary on the reason for his determination to sit on the report to his successor as gaming minister, Paul Toole, also a Nationals MP.

The government’s excuse is it needed to carefully consider the recommendations and formulate a response prior to release. But given its response largely consists of “we’re looking at it”, this holds very little credibility.

Vastly more credible is this: it’s the response of a craven state government fearful of the power of the pokies lobby and compromised by its eagerness to accept its donations.

Grant was advised to release the report because it contained valuable information that could aid gambling harm researchers. As a former policeman he would be well-versed in how poker machines addiction can destroy families and drive addicts to crime.

He should be condemned for his failure to act.

Just as importantly, the episode highlights the absurdity of the political donations exemption for Clubs NSW. Having also pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry over the years, Labor has been dead silent on this issue.

Banning clubs and their representatives from donating to political parties would not solve the entire problem, but it would be a sensible start.

Sean Nicholls is State Political Editor.