Derk Swieringa. Ka-ching – The interest of the Labor Party in poker machines in the ACT.

 

This article is prompted by the recent ABC program ‘Ka-Ching’ which details the subtle mechanisms that are programmed into poker machines to make them addictive. It reminded me of the clever engineers at VW who were able to program software into their cars to cheat pollution testing.

Let me also declare my personal experience of the havoc caused to families by poker machine addiction. My late mother in law blew her last $60,000 of retirement savings on mainly poker machine gambling. A close friend’s sister in law committed suicide after she gambled away her own daughters’ savings. Sadly, there are few families that have not been adversely affected by the curse of gambling addiction.

Roughly 80% of all gambling in Australia is via poker machines. Any analysis of the problem of gambling addiction concludes that poker machines are the main problem. Many, many poker machines are located in community clubs such as the Canberra Labor Club where they are often patronised by the poor, the elderly and the lonely. The Ka-Ching program showed how these machines are cleverly programmed to turn these people into poker machine addicts. It is estimated that over 50% of all revenue from poker machines comes from people with an addiction problem.

The Gillard government tried to address this problem but were beaten by a relentless campaign conducted by Clubs Australia. As a measure of this campaign I recall going into the Tomakin Social Club and seeing a life size poster of Mike Kelly, the local Labor member and minister at the time, with the caption underneath “this man wants to destroy our club”. An outrageous claim.

Yet the Canberra Labor Club claims on its website to be ‘proud members’ of Clubs ACT, an affiliate of Clubs Australia.

In the 1970’s members and friends of the Labor Party formed a community club. This Labor Club has now grown into a four venue corporation with assets over $60 million and a turnover more than $30 million per year. The bulk of this turnover coming from members’ losses on poker machines. Under the constitution of the Canberra Labor Club its profits go to the ACT Branch of the Labor Party. As a result the Party has received millions every year.

A previous Labor Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, who disliked the link between the Party and poker machines, tried to sell the Labor Club but he was blocked at the Party’s federal level. No doubt because it is the Party’s most lucrative source of revenue.

Poker machines, brothels and tobacconists are all legal industries in the ACT but their operation requires sensitive policy settings and administration. It is therefore inappropriate for a political party in government to derive funds from any of these sources if it wants to avoid a perceived conflict of interest. Nor is it now necessary for the Labor Party to derive its money from gambling. Recent amendments in the ACT to donation rules, plus government grants to political parties, now provide ample funds for political parties to run elections fair and square.

The Labor Club has 9 directors,6 of whom are are nominated by ACT Labor. In effect, therefore, the 50,000 plus members of the Labor Club have no say in the running of the Club. Furthermore, unlike other community clubs that publicise their constitution, annual report, financials etc on their web site, the Labor Club on its web site provides no such information and therefore keeps its members in the dark. When I recently asked for a copy of the 2014/15 annual report I was told that, under the constitution, I would have to apply in writing to the Company Secretary who would decide if I would be given a copy. This is treating members as if they belonged to the mushroom club.

The Canberra Times, which is not known for being anti-Labor, has written numerous articles critical of this link between the party and gambling money but invariably the Club responds with a ‘no comment’. I am sure that the Liberal Party will not leave this matter alone at the territorial elections next year.

In many respects the ACT Branch of the Labor Party is very well run. For example, pre-selections for the House of Representatives, Senate and Local Assembly are determined by members ballots and not by Party bosses as in other states. However, as a Party member, I wish we could rid ourselves of a reliance on gambling money. It is also regretted that powerful lobbying forces were able to beat a Labor Government which was proposing to implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendations. These recommendations were aimed at harm minimisation by limiting the size and speed of bets on poker machines.

Derk Swieringa has been a member of the ACT Labor Club for some years and joined the ACT Branch of the Labor Party in 2014. He is also a strong supporter of Open Labor. Derk believes that the Labor Party must be fit for government not only in the polices it presents to the electorate but also in the integrity of its internal administration.

 

 

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