Barr sullies virus recovery with pokie politics

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“Andrew Barr’s hostility to poker machines has not extended to refusing to accept funding from the proceeds of poker machines owned by the ACT Labor Party or the CFMEU,” writes political columnist JON STANHOPE.

WE have much to be proud of and pleased about in the way in which Australia has responded to the coronavirus.

Jon Stanhope.

While our relative isolation and small population worked in our favour, the response by the Commonwealth and state and territory governments has nevertheless, to date, been measured, sound and successful. We can be thankful for the leadership that PM Scott Morrison and all state and territory leaders have shown.

A feature of the Australian response has been the dominant role played by the respective chief health officers (CHO), health officials and relevant experts and all those who work in the health system. We owe each of them our thanks and gratitude.

The Commonwealth chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy and all of his state and territory counterparts, including Dr Kerryn Coleman here in the ACT, have played a significant, indeed dominant role in achieving public acceptance of and compliance with the range of restrictions that have been put in place.

The undoubted expertise and professionalism that each has clearly exhibited was an important factor in engendering the degree of trust within the community which has clearly been central to the success of our response to COVID 19.

The Australian response to the pandemic has been very different to the disastrous, and deadly, shambles that people of the US and Britain have had to endure. 

The major difference between the Australian response and theirs has been that in Australia it has been the decisions of health professionals that not only underpinned decision making but also dominated news cycles, rather than those of their political masters. 

In my view, we have been fortunate that political considerations, at least at a domestic level, have in the main taken a back seat. An exception of sorts has been Scott Morrison’s attacks on China that were naïve and suggest a degree of obsequiousness to Donald Trump and his toxic agenda, which is not in our national interest and makes us look weak and needy. Too high a price to pay, surely, for an invitation to the G7. 

However, it was because of the role which the non-political and pleasingly bipartisan approach to the pandemic has played in our, so far, successful response to COVID-19 that I was particularly disappointed that Chief Minister Andrew Barr chose to revisit his feud with Canberra’s community clubs in seeking not to explain why the ACT had chosen not to open clubs, pubs and gaming venues in the same way as the NSW government.

Since June 1, a hotel, bar or restaurant, including those located within clubs, in NSW could have 50 patrons in each enclosed space within a venue up to a maximum of 500 patrons. It is also possible to have a drink separate from a meal and to lay a bet on the horses or play the pokies.

In responding to media questioning about the reason that the ACT had chosen to not mirror for at least a further six weeks the NSW policy, Barr responded with a diatribe about the evils of gambling and of poker machines.

Barr is, of course, entitled to his opinions about poker machines. However, his refusal to comment on or specifically justify the reasons for the different approach of the ACT in this instance raises a concern, rightly or wrongly, that the decision may not have been based solely on medical or scientific advice but reflected a particular personal or political bias of the Chief Minister. 

Barr’s anti-gambling rant also puts the chief health officer in a difficult position in that it has generated a range of questions that those in the hospitality sector in the ACT and the thousands of people who are employed in it but currently sitting at home desperately trying to make ends meet are understandably asking themselves. Namely, what was the true basis of the decision to diverge from the NSW policy? Does the CHO have evidence that is at odds with that presumably relied on by NSW authorities that identifies the NSW approach as foolhardy, dangerous or unacceptable? What advice did she provide the Chief Minister about the decision not to adopt the same policy as NSW and will she or the Chief Minister make that advice publicly available?

It also raises the question, if the ACT government genuinely believes that it is unsafe to adopt the NSW policy, whether ACT residents who choose to cross the border should be advised to avoid all clubs, pubs, cafes and restaurants in NSW. Or indeed if the NSW policy is as problematic as the ACT government obviously believes it is then should we, having regard to the proximity of Queanbeyan, close the border until it is deemed safe to go to a café or club or to lay a bet, in NSW. 

Andrew Barr’s hostility to poker machines has not, of course, extended to refusing to accept funding, for every election campaign he has ever been involved in, from the proceeds of poker machines owned by the ACT Labor Party or the CFMEU, which between them are the largest owner/operators of poker machines in the ACT. 

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.



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Jon Stanhope
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.


  1. As a former Chief Minister, Jon should be well aware that there are zero “poker machines owned by the ACT Labor Party”. He has apparently confused the registered political party, the ACT Branch of the ALP, with a company limited by guarantee established in the ACT, namely the Canberra Labor Club, a non-profit organisation. As a company limited by guarantee, it is not “owned” by any other entity. David Wedgwood (Disclosure: former ACT ALP Secretary/Treasurer, and former Director of the Canberra Labor Club)

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