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THE ACT government is at serious risk of its planned assault on the community contributions scheme being perceived as pay-back by Labor and the Greens on the clubs that campaigned against them at the last election.
While the government is claiming that its response mirrors the auditor-general’s April report it goes well beyond the auditor’s findings.
The auditor’s central conclusion was that because of the nature of the existing guidelines, which were developed by the government, the breadth and diversity of the expenditure approved by the Gambling and Racing Commission meant that “there will be considerable disagreement as to the merits and value of community contributions”.
This may very well be true but it does not mean that the guidelines are flawed or that the current range of expenditure identified as community contribution is inappropriate or that the auditor was suggesting that it be paid in the form of tax to the government to disburse.
In any event, to deny a club the primary role in determining how its community contribution will be disbursed potentially subverts the very reason that the club was established and the basis of its existence and success.
Apart from its immaturity, the ban by ministers on dealing with ClubsACT, together with the proposal to raid and take over the community contributions of its member clubs, sets an interesting and I think dangerous precedent.
As I have said, I think it is clear that these actions are a response to the political activism of ClubsACT during the last election to which the government has taken serious but unjustified exception.
Apart from political parties and candidates, the most active and partisan participants in election campaigns are, without argument, the unions.
In the event a Liberal government is ever elected in the ACT it would certainly be open to it to declare that, consistent with the precedent established by this Labor/Greens government to blacklist Clubs ACT that it, the Liberal Party, will not meet with or consult any union that provides electoral support to the Labor Party.
However, central to my concern with the plan by the government to rip the community contributions off clubs is the gross disrespect which it shows to the thousands of Canberrans who have over many decades devoted themselves to establishing and sustaining clubs for the benefit and support of the community.
What the government is saying is that despite the fact that the clubs are operating within guidelines developed by the government, that they and their staff and members cannot be trusted to either recognise or appropriately meet the needs of the people for whom they established the clubs in the first place.
The government appears to believe that it knows best and that only it can be trusted to disburse funds raised by clubs for community support.
I am also concerned by the serious conflicts of interest the government has in the regulation of poker machines in Canberra. The ACT branch of the Labor Party is one of the largest owners and operators of poker machines in Australia.
To the extent that poker machines cause harm, and their use is certainly harmful to a proportion of those who use them, then the Labor Party is responsible for as high a proportion of harm from poker machine use in Canberra as anyone.
We should not, therefore, allow ourselves to be diverted into thinking that by appearing to be tough on clubs and on poker machines that the government is somehow assuaging itself of responsibility for the Labor Party’s complicity in the harm poker machines cause.
The proposal to hypothecate community contributions to a central charity for disbursement is in effect to convert the contributions into a tax.
If the government is genuinely concerned that there are services and organisations missing out or falling through the cracks, then surely responsibility for that rests solely with the government. Labor and the Greens have, for example, cut funding in the current Budget for social protection and provided for growth of less than inflation for housing and health.
It is not being too cynical to suggest that the move to convert community contributions into tax is designed to compensate for these cuts.
To seek, in any event, to deflect responsibility for its own shortcomings and the management of its Budget on to community clubs is a bit rich.
Underscoring the apparent contempt which Labor and the Greens have for clubs, other than, of course, for those that bankroll the Labor Party, is the lack of understanding which they have of the massive social capital generated by clubs.
Community clubs in Canberra are for tens of thousands of people, particularly our older residents and those from lower income quintiles, the major providers in Canberra of entertainment, a family night out, an affordable meal, companionship and a place and opportunity to socialise and belong. Canberra clubs are the heart of our community.
Poker machine use can be harmful and the effectiveness of the response to that harm has certainly been problematical. Alienating and insulting everyone in Canberra for whom their club is a special and important place will do nothing to address the problem.
Jon Stanhope was chief minister from 2001 to 2011 and represented Ginninderra for the Labor Party from 1998. He is the only chief minister to have governed with a majority in the Assembly.