Moore / Pokies debate pushes Labor into a corner

“For around 10 years I have argued in this column that all the elected members of the Labor Party have a conflict of interest regarding poker machines,” writes political columnist MICHAEL MOORE

CORRUPTION undermines good governance. And good governance is fundamental to ensuring a vibrant and successful democracy.

Michael Moore

One of the key understandings from Queensland’s Fitzgerald Royal Commission from the late 1980s was that corruption grows from “bending the rules” on the small things.

This is why the ACT and the Federal governments need to ensure they have appropriate checks and balances. Recent exposure of the family of deputy tax commissioner Michael Cranston will be used (incorrectly) to argue that appropriate checks and balances are working.

The normal checks and balances of good public service practice, auditing, policing and parliamentary oversight were not enough to expose the corruption of Eddie Obeid. It took the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption to identify the issues and find appropriate evidence to pursue his corrupt actions as a minister in the NSW Labor government.

The recent debate in the ACT over changes to poker-machine policies raises questions that ought to be investigated. For around 10 years I have argued in this column that all the elected members of the Labor Party have a conflict of interest regarding poker machines.

Although not a “personal” conflict of interest – it does play a significant role in assuring the election of each and every one. Jon Stanhope attempted to resolve this issue when he was Chief Minister by proposing the sale of Labor Party interest in clubs. He was unsuccessful.

At the last election, Chief Minister, Andrew Barr, flagged extending poker machines to Canberra Casino that resulted in ClubsACT launching an unprecedented attack on the Labor Party, spending nearly a quarter of a million dollars supporting candidates opposing Labor’s approach. The Liberal Party saw their opportunity and poured fuel on the fire.

The tension between the government and ClubsACT remained palpable after the election, with some of the Labor-affiliated clubs distancing themselves from ClubsACT.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), owners of the Tradies clubs, were reported in “The Canberra Times” by Kirsten Lawson as having a vitriolic split with ClubsACT. The CFMEU is now part of an alternative group. Apparently, this is much more acceptable to the government, although the Labor Party’s clubs belong to neither industry group.

The Greens have bought into the debate by announcing the intention to introduce a limit on poker machines to $1 per bet. Greens leader, Shane Rattenbury, in a heated debate in the Legislative Assembly, indicated support for a limit of $250 from EFTPOS machines as simply a good first step to broader reforms.

With Liberal shadow minister Mark Parton vigorously defending the position of ClubsACT, not only on pokies in the casino but on any regulated change to poker machines, the Labor Party is being pushed more and more into a corner.

The irony is that the party finds itself in this situation when it seems it might be trying to do the right thing by problem gamblers. Parton missed the damage done by addiction to gambling with inappropriate and offensive comments in the Assembly including the suggestion that more Canberrans were addicted to chocolate than to gambling.

Gambling has become much more ubiquitous in our society and goes well beyond poker machines. Exposure of children to marketing of gambling, for example, has been invasive. About three quarters of children aged 8-16 can recall the name of at least one sports-betting brand, while about a quarter can recall four brands or more. More worrying is that 75 per cent of children think that gambling is a normal or common part of sport – mainly because of the advertising that they see for these products.

The Greens explain the place of poker machines “of the $19 billion gambled by Australians every year, 60 per cent (or $12 billion) goes into poker machines”.

Labor in the ACT does have a problem. It is probably not enough of a conflict of interest to be called corruption. However, the impact on decision making around gambling has always been muddy. Corruption starts with bending the rules. The ACT does need an independent body that can initiate appropriate investigations and clean up this mess and ones like it.

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