Saturday 21st of May 2022

the one arm-bandit winning streak...


Independent MP Andrew Wilkie has had the gambling industry in his sights for more than a decade. But then, the industry has also had its sights set on him.

The former soldier-turned-spy — who first came head-to-head with the government in 2003 when he blew the whistle on the flawed intelligence case for the Iraq War — is no stranger to conflict. But, he admits, when he took on the gambling industry in 2010, he wasn't prepared for the bloodbath that followed.

"I underestimated the power of the poker machine lobby," Wilkie says.

"At the end of the day, even at the highest level, [Australia's major parties] were running a protection racket for the gambling industry."

In 2010, when Wilkie secured then-prime minister Julia Gillard's backing to rein in the pokies, the gambling lobby — led by peak industry groups the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) and ClubsNSW — declared war.

By 2012, Gillard had backflipped on her deal with Wilkie, legislating a far weaker set of reforms. In 2013, the Labor government was ousted by the Coalition, which axed those modest changes.

Wilkie chalks up the gambling lobby's thumping victory to its powerful political base, deep political connections and even deeper pockets.

The Australian Hotels Association and ClubsNSW, together, disclosed roughly $16 million in political contributions between 1998-99 and 2019-20, an ABC investigation has revealed.

This equates to more than one third of political donations disclosed by the gambling industry.

Generous donations are the backbone of a "tremendous lobbying exercise" that has allowed the industry to amass enormous power, says former Court of Appeals judge Anthony Whealy, now chair of the Centre for Public Integrity.

"They know that they'll get a return call when they make a phone call. They know they'll get an audience when they want one," he says.

"And they know that politicians fear being left on the outer by the enormous community that uses hotels and clubs for their social enjoyment."

It is not illegal to donate to political parties, nor to finance a political campaign, as long as the transactions are made and reported in accordance with Australia's donations laws.

However, Australia's federal disclosure laws are some of the weakest in the developed world, experts say.










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