Having buckled to Alan Jones in the Opera House debacle, Gladys Berejiklian faces another Jones-test this weekend, arguably a challenge of greater import, a challenge which may save lives. Michael West reports.

Controversial radio jock Alan Jones is poised to deliver the keynote address, titled “The Way I See It”, this Sunday morning at the annual conference of NSWClubs, Australia’s most powerful poker machines lobby. Australia’s most powerful radio host and his station 2GB are are commercial partners with NSWClubs and the state has been bunkered in negotiations with the clubs lobby.

Every four years, the state and the clubs sign a deal, an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) which sets the course for pokies policy and the deal is tipped to be announced at the NSWClubs conference – sponsored by gaming giant IGT – this weekend at Darling Harbour. It was last time.

This time, however, the Premier has the upper-hand in negotiations. She has a chance to strike a blow for poker machines reform. Last time, in 2014, the state pretty much gave the pokies lobby everything it wanted: transportable pokies leases, lower taxes, regulatory certainty, little in the way of harm minimisation reform.

Player losses, and consequently club profits, have shot through the roof.

Pokies: the Rise of the Machines

But this year, chairman of ClubsNSW, perhaps Australia’s most sackable chairman, Peter Newell, is embroiled in a crisis.

Newell is both the chairman of the clubs peak body and the chairman of the troubled Steelers Rugby Leagues Club. He has been on the board of the Steelers for 29 years but, right under his nose, the club has been busted forking out free drinks and cash advances of up to $40,000 to keep the punters glued to their machines, losing.

There’s more. The Steelers long-term chief executive Scott Miles is serving a four-year spell in prison for stealing $1 million to feed his own pokies addiction.

The Club’s finances are shot by fines and theft, and a report by the Liquor & Gaming authority found “prolonged and systemic” illegality.

That the Steelers board apparently knew nothing about the crimes raging about under its collective nose is no excuse. The whole point of being a director, and being paid directors’ fees year-in year-out, is to take responsibility for the corporate entity under its purview.

Newell and his fellow directors – and yes, typical of gambling club corporate culture, they are all fellows – are responsible.

Yet Newell remains. And he remains as chairman of ClubsNSW after 14 years. This, despite poor governance of the clubs sector in general; poor disclosure and poor governance practices in general.

A series of investigations by michaelwest.com.au has found the financial statements of many of the biggest pokies venues in Australia, venues which rack up as much as $100 million in machine revenues alone – this is big business – are not even made public.

Love a flutter? Here’s a flutter!

When they are, it is often just the one year of accounts, often accounts which fail to comply with the law. Interestingly, ClubsNSW own accounts – and the secretive body has refused to address questions about them – show a corporate enterprise making strong profits from its Keno business but paying tax like a charity.

Peter Newell is on record, ironically, espousing the benefits of good corporate governance.

In a speech to Clubs Queensland, recently taken down from YouTube,  he says:

“All things flow from proper corporate governance on many fronts.”

“As directors of clubs, your responsibilities really are no different than if you were a director of BHP. You are responsible for the club’s various policies, indeed having policies in the first place and that they are being adhered to – hello Essendon.”

“While not being able to hide behind the CEO, the CEO and the board can devise then implement various policies, but the board then simply cannot wash its hand of things … and seek refuge behind the CEO.”

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian

So it is that Gladys Berejiklian has a unique opportunity, rather than locking in regulatory nirvana for the clubs lobby for the next four years – and rewarding them with something to boast about at Darling Harbour this weekend, to tell ClubsNSW to put its own house in order and wait until after the election to sign the MOU.

This course of action, unfortunately, might entail arousing the ire of Alan Jones again. And as the aftermath of the Opera House capitulation clearly demonstrates, politicians of both stripes kow-tow to Alan Jones. The feeble responses from the PM down to the proposition of showcasing Australia’s prolific gambling to a world in which nearly half the population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day, more than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day – and 22,000 children die each day due to poverty, speaks volumes.

NSW is the biggest gambling state in Australia, Australia is the biggest gambling nation in the world, pokies are the biggest instrument of gambling by losses and clubs are the biggest pokies venues by dollars, billions of dollars, lost.

If it’s business as usual this weekend and nothing is done to address the ravages of problem gambling via negotiations with ClubsNSW, their major sponsor, ICT, may reasonably begin the construction of a new machine, the Queen of Clubs, or perhaps, the Queen of Alan.

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