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Does anyone have a chance in a race against big gambling?

Rev Tim Costello

21 Feb 2024

Is Australia's political system corrupt?

Can money and power buy the outcomes it wants and do our political leaders yield to their influence if it aligns with their own personal interests or the interests of their party?

While it may not be possible to give a simple "yes" or "no" answer to such questions, there are gravely worrying trends emerging now about our system. Trends that should concern us all.

There are many weaknesses in our system and there is mounting evidence that they are being exploited by powerful forces.

Australia ranked in 14th place globally in Transparency International's Perceptions of Corruption Index 2023 released last month. We scored better than Papua New Guinea and Indonesia but not as good as Denmark or New Zealand.

Australia rose in the rankings a year earlier due, in part, to the creation of the National Anti-Corruption Commission but this year fears around the opaque nature of political donations was cited by TIA among a number of reasons for Australia stagnating in the ratings in 2023.

Recent data from the Australian Electoral Commission revealed that over the past five years the major parties received more than $290 million in "dark money" - donations where there is no public record of where it came from.

And as The Australian Financial Review has reported, federal Labor banked $5 million from its Federal Labor Business Forum. This included $600,000 from gambling companies in what has been dubbed Labor's "pay-for-access" subscription packages for companies. Tabcorp, Sportsbet and pokies giant Endeavour Group all dug deep into their pockets under the scheme.

It comes as the gambling industry launches an avalanche of closed-door, opaque lobbying of the federal government as it considers its response to the recommendations of a parliamentary inquiry into online gambling.

And here we find the perfect litmus test of our system.

Even with all its flaws, and there are many, can it stand up to the influence of power and money?

But first a little background.

Labor MP Peta Murphy, who recently lost her battle with cancer, chaired the inquiry into online gambling and its impacts on those experiencing gambling harm.

Her determination to get to the bottom of the critical issues and harm experienced by the community shone through in her questioning of witnesses and her tireless dedication.

Her work led to a significant report with 31 recommendations - which won the unanimous support of the multi-party committee. If implemented, it will arrest the increasingly devastating impact that online gambling and advertising is having on our nation.

Among the recommendations was a reasonable and gradual ban on gambling advertising and promotions to be phased in over three years.

This is fiercely opposed by big gambling. It is also opposed by those who benefit from gambling advertising including many commercial media outlets and the big sporting codes.

The government has been sitting on the recommendations of the Peta Murphy report for almost eight months now. Peta wanted these gambling reforms to be part of her legacy. But the government is yet to release its response.

Tellingly, its unlikely to release its findings during campaigning for Peta's vacant seat of Dunkley which is now subject to a byelection as the ALP seek not to be wedged on gambling reform.

Yet there are dangers every day the government delays in responding to this report.

Documents obtained through freedom of information have shown the industry's lobbying frenzy. Rather than arguing their case to the inquiry, the gambling lobby have all sought or secured meetings with the Communications Minister, Michelle Rowland.

According to the documents, gambling companies Sportsbet, Crown, Betfair, Pointsbet, Tabcorp, Betr, BlueBet and Entain (which owns the Ladbrokes and Neds brands), have all discussed their concerns with the minister or her staff. The AFL and the NRL have also had two meetings with the minister to voice their concerns.

We have no problem with the government consulting with stakeholders who would be impacted by possible changes to laws. But the time and place for these organisations to put their case was, surely, during the public inquiry in a transparent and accountable way.

The gambling industry profits from the staggering $25 billion that Australian's lose to gambling every year. They have very deep pockets, and analysis has showed they employ more lobbyists in Canberra - in fact more than double - than any other legal, harmful industry like tobacco and alcohol.

And this is the great litmus test.

We will soon know how the Albanese government responds to the recommendations of the Murphy report. Will it move to protect Australians from gambling harm and do what is in the best interests of Australia?

Or will it yield to the power, money and influence of vested interests?

It is hard to find anyone in Australia who is not angered at the proliferation of gambling advertising in Australia. There is also visceral anger at how online gambling advertising targets our children on social media.

The government's response to the Murphy inquiry into online gambling will tell us much about how robust our political system is or how it can be bent and moulded into the play thing of big business.

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