The Petersham principle: Putting paid to pokies in NSW

December 20, 2022
Arcade games
Arcade games have replaced the poker machine room in some pubs as communities push back against gambling lobbyists.

When New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet recently declared his government would not be dictated to by Clubs NSW over gambling reform, Victor Dominello, the former gaming minister and MP for Ryde, must have been furious.

Dominello was the architect of the Bergin Inquiry that took down James Packer’s Crown Casino empire. In the wake of its avalanche of damning findings, Dominello began to push hard for a compulsory gambling debit card. Perrottet was then treasurer and had publicly voiced his support for Dominello’s reforms.

Genuinely seeking to address money laundering, organised crime and gambling harm in the community, Dominello’s reforms had strong cross bench support, including some inside Cabinet, from One Nation and the Greens. Clearly, it was not strong enough.  

Enter stage left (where live bands and local acts used to play) comes Clubs NSW, lobbying furiously against it. It claimed its business model had already caught COVID-19 and reform was an unfair attack, kicking it while it was down.

In reality, this industry nearly doubled annual revenue to almost $25 billion in the last 15 years, $14 billion of it from Australia’s 200,000 poker machines, half of them in NSW.

With numbers like that and agreements in place with consecutive state governments protecting them, it seemed a safe bet the gambling industry would again get what it wanted.

The Joker

Ironically, it was an Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) wildcard that unwittingly played right into the gambling lobbyists hands sealing the deal.

When then-Premier Gladys Berejiklian fell on her ICAC sword, after sensational revelations of her personal involvement with ICAC target and Wagga MP Daryl Maguire, Perrottet somehow ended up with the leadership.

Proving that, in politics, the big money is always on the horse called self interest, Perrottet’s previous support for Dominello’s reforms suddenly evaporated on the last furlong.

Dominello found himself demoted in a Sunday Cabinet reshuffle, stripped of responsibility for gaming — just as he was looking like literally the only person in NSW who could have pulled it off.

Clubs NSW applauded, applied for all the COVID-19 grants it could get its hands on and went back to business as usual, kicking the cat on the way past by suing terminally-ill former employee and whistleblower Troy Stoltz.

But the tightly woven lobbyists’ web strait-jacketing NSW politics was about to be torn open by visceral community anger, including at the undue influence of lobbyists with bottomless cheque books.


After the federal Liberal party was cleaned out in this year’s election, Perrottet, treading gingerly through the toxic fallout from Scott Morrison and Alex Hawke trying to rig the NSW Liberal’s pre-selections, found himself with a less than 40% approval rating — the bookies choice to lose the March 2023 election.

Also, the NSW Crime Commission released its Bergin-like report into cashless gaming in October, stating that the only way to remove the “last remaining safe haven” for money laundering and rein in harm, was to get rid of cash poker machines altogether.

So, in an act of desperate political self-harm, Perrottet wagered heavily on the mistaken belief that that “staring down” the gambling lobby would make him look like a hero in the eyes of voters.

The industry’s response has been predictable saying: it punishes gamblers; will cost jobs; attacks local clubs; will plunge us into a dystopian nanny state and destroy club-funded community sporting facilities, etcetera, etcetera.

The Petersham principle

This brings us to the Petersham Bowling and Recreation Club: Its members would beg to differ and have showed everyone how it’s done. The club was in serious financial trouble in 2006: it was about to close, circled by developers who wanted to knock it down and build townhouses, or a corporatised childcare centre.

But the community loved their club and had other ideas, going full crackerjack to save it. The entire board was replaced by community-minded directors, led by new president George Catsi, known for a special interest in reducing community harm from gambling.

Determined to save the club and turn it into a community hub, Catsi and the board did the unthinkable. Against the advice of Clubs NSW, in 2007 the board voted to get rid of the poker machines altogether, seeking less predatory ways of getting community members in the door.

As Catsi said: “I just don’t believe that one member of the community should subsidise another.” The club now boasts bowling, live music, reception and function facilities, dining and more than 20 craft beers on tap. It holds regular family events, is community inclusive and environmentally friendly.

Against all odds, it became a massive hit in the community and continues to make a profit whilst meeting community needs, including during the pandemic. Now it is marketing itself as “Proudly Pokies Free” and has partnered with the Greens in the Pull the Pin on Pokies campaign.

The Greens’ plan includes a pokies’ supertax to fund gambling harm reduction and replace the infamous Clubs Grants Scheme. It would also phase pokies out of pubs in five years and clubs in 10.

The idea that saving your local is more about bringing the community together for common benefit rather than tearing them apart for obscene profits, is catching on. Pokies-free venues, including the Carlisle Castle in Newtown, are not nearly as rare as gambling lobbyists would have you believe.

Labor leader Chris Minns wants to bet both ways over cashless gambling and the Nationals are remaining predictably silent. The Greens’ campaign may well get real traction during the NSW election campaign.

But if politicians fail us yet again, the Petersham Principle might be the last chance we have to put the gambling lobby back in its box. A last roll of the dice before democracy gets put down the pokies.

[Suzanne James has a background in writing policy, governance, risk management and regulatory compliance frameworks and in legislative compliance application.]

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