A proposal to introduce prepaid gambling cards in New South Wales was unanimously rejected by the Nationals' chamber, creating the potential for a new internal stoush within the state's coalition government.
Earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister and Head of State John Barilaro spoke out against a proposal to introduce prepaid gaming cards for slot machines in pubs and clubs across the state.
Although the proposal is not yet in the cabinet, the release of Patricia Bergin's report on money laundering at Crown Resorts has given the proposal a boost after she said the card was "an effective anti-money laundering aid".
The idea of “slot machine” players having to register and pre-load money onto a government-regulated card was first addressed by Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello in October last year.
It has also garnered the endorsement of longtime gambling reform advocate and Independent Federal MP Andrew Wilkie, who told the Guardian the card would "significantly reduce money laundering and provide opportunities to reduce the prevalence of gambling addiction".
"It is important for NSW to take the lead in this reform because the state is home to about half of the country's poker machines as well as some of the most ardent proponents of the poker industry, particularly ClubsNSW," he said.
While the government has the backing of a few unlikely allies of the proposal – most notably the Greens, a nation and the Animal Justice Party in the upper house of the state – it is the junior coalition partner, the Nationals, that may be the greatest opposition.
Barilaro first noted his opposition to the proposal earlier this month, saying the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic meant that "it was not the time to strangle pubs and clubs with bureaucracy".
"Our pubs and clubs are at the heart of our communities and have borne the brunt of the Covid restrictions and the economic shock wave. Now is the time to support this sector and not strangle it with expensive bureaucracy," the Deputy Prime Minister told the Telegraph newspaper.
This opposition has now escalated. In a move reflecting last year's internal firefight over protecting new koala habitats, the Guardian understands that the Nationals' Party Chamber unanimously voted against introducing a gambling card. If the proposal went to cabinet, nationals would instead push for the renewal of a memorandum of understanding signed between the government and ClubsNSW before the last election.
Nationals are not alone when it comes to the playing card. The Labor Party has yet to take a formal position on politics, but sentiment within the party is divided on the idea. Former chairman and now Labor backbencher Michael Daley is one of the few MPs who has gone public to voice concerns about politics. He reminded him of the failure of the former Baird government to ban greyhound racing.
"We're all concerned about problem gambling, but the answers need to be considered, evidence-based and proportionate," Daley told the Guardian.
“What worries me about the proposal that Victor Dominello published in October at the height of Covid and without the approval of the cabinet was that it was his independent thoughts without consulting the industry.
“I'm sure if the government sat down with industry they could come up with some really good solutions, but if thoughtless proposals just stink publicly at a time when pubs and clubs are really struggling, they are made public Greyhound debacle all over again. "
Part of Labor's hesitation over the proposal stems from former Prime Minister Julia Gillard's attempts to pass similar reforms under her minority government agreement with the Tasmanian independent Wilkie. In 2012, Gillard demolished the deal and withdrew from the mandatory pre-commitment proposal following a campaign for marginal seats organized by Clubs Australia.
In NSW, the influence of the club lobby is perhaps even more significant. As the Guardian reported last week, ClubsNSW gained more access to the deputy prime minister than any other company in the first eight months of the pandemic, securing 13 meetings in eight months. Although this access has increased due to the impact of the pandemic on the clubs, it also remains a significant funder for both parties.
Australian Electoral Commission records show ClubsNSW has donated nearly $ 3.5 million over the past two decades. In the past fiscal year, $ 49,895 was donated, including $ 33,000 to Federal Labor.
Wilkie told the Guardian he was more optimistic that the NSW government could make progress on reform, saying the "Pro-Pokies-Nationals need to pull their heads in".
"There was once a time when I would have given reform little chance of success, but times have evidently changed so much that there are real chances of success," he said.
“The community now understands the damage caused by poker machines much more clearly. In addition, revelations like the Bergin Crown investigation have made people aware of the importance of gambling for money laundering. "