Gifts Hospitality

Money AND gifts: How the gambling industry buys political influence

In addition to donating millions to Labor and the Coalition parties, gaming companies and pokies venues are giving hundreds of expensive gifts to their federal MPs, our new analysis reveals. Open Politics shows who's giving and who’s getting, as well as those with shares in gambling companies.

Sean Johnson

The gambling industry has given at least 153 tickets and hospitality to major sports and entertainment events, and many cartons of beer and wine, over the past four years, an analysis of parliament’s interest registers has found.

47 sitting MPs - over 20% of the parliament - and 10 former MPs have declared gambling gifts, hospitality and shareholdings to the registers since April 2019, though this probably understates the extent of the industry's influence peddling because gifts and hospitality under $300 do not need to be disclosed and for the fact that some MPs don't disclose gifts and hospitality above the threshold.

Tabcorp, Australia’s largest gambling company, is also the industry gorilla when it comes to gifts and hospitality, doling out at least 110 tickets to major sports and entertainment events.

And the chief recipient of Tabcorp's largesse - and the entire industry's - is Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, who's nominally responsible for most federal gambling regulation. She's hoovered up 21 tickets from Tabcorp and six from The Star Entertainment Group in just four years.

Meanwhile 12 MPs have declared they, or a family member, have shareholdings in gambling companies, with Endeavour Group, Australia’s largest pokies operator, the most popular holding.

Who's giving

Who's getting


Table of all gifts, hospitality & shares

Tabcorp has a woeful record of complying with its anti-money laundering obligations but it's first in its class currying favour with MPs, providing gifts and hospitality on 60 occasions, including multiple tickets to the Melbourne Cup Birdcage and Derby Day, the Australian Open, NRL State of Origin, the Ashes, AFL matches, and Rugby tests. A total of 110 tickets were handed out, with special MPs like Communications Minister Michelle Rowland receiving two lots of five tickets to sporting events in the past six months.

The company is also one of the gambling industry's biggest donors (behind only Clubs NSW), according to research by the Centre for Public Integrity published by the SMH last month showing the bully boy has ploughed over $3 million into party coffers between 1999 and 2021.

The Star Entertainment Group, the scandal-plagued casino with similar money laundering failures, gave gifts and hospitality on at least 10 occasions, including tickets to high-priced musicals Hamilton and Billy Elliott, and the ARL State of Origin, as well as dinners, champagne, and Christmas functions. A total of 22 tickets and gifts were given.

The Australian Hotels Association (AHA) is another major player in the donations plus gifts game. The Centre for Public Integrity found that various AHA branches have donated just under $5 million in two decades, while our analysis shows that in the past four years the AHA and the Queensland Hotels Association, which acts as the AHA’s Queensland branch, have provided gifts and hospitality on at least 13 occasions, including cases of beer and wine.

LNP Senator James McGrath seems to be a favourite with the lobby, scoring 24 bottles of shiraz from the AHA and $821 of assorted beer and wine from the QHA. Nationals Senator Ross Cadell declared an unusual gift from the AHA: a fridge for his office. Perhaps this is to store imminent alcohol gifts.

The next heavy hitter is Sportsbet, Australia's largest online betting operator. The company has donated over $483,000 since it began making political donations in 2019, and over about the same period has provided at least eight tickets and hospitality to sporting events such as the Australian Open, the Melbourne Cup, and AFL matches.

Clubs NSW has donated $2.7 million to political parties since 1999, so we were surprised their name only appeared in five gift declarations. We suspect though that the vast majority of their gifts – e.g. bottles of wine and hampers - are not being disclosed because they are below the $300 disclosure threshold. Why do we say this? Because honest people such as Education Minister Jason Clare and Senator Ross Cadell have a habit of declaring almost all gifts and hospitality from logrollers, regardless of value. Clare declared a Christmas hamper from Clubs NSW worth an estimated $150, while Cadell declared a $29.99 bottle of pinot noir and $8.45 Red Cherries that Clubs NSW delivered to his electorate office as a Christmas gift.

Communications Minister Michelle Rowland is responsible for the regulation of online gambling and gambling advertising on television, but this hasn't stopped her accepting gambling gifts and hospitality, more than anyone else in parliament. She not only dines with online betting company Sportsbet at election fundraisers, but enjoys regular hospitality from Tabcorp and casino operator The Star Entertainment Group, accepting a total of 27 sports and entertainment tickets from the two companies in four years.

This includes tickets and hospitality at the races and Rugby tests from Tabcorp, and tickets to Hamilton and dinner from The Star. Ten of the 27 tickets were provided after she became minister, and the rest were enjoyed during her time as shadow communications minister.

The Opposition's Shadow Communications Minister, Senator Sarah Henderson, has received a total of eight tickets and hospitality from Tabcorp to various racing fixtures, including the Melbourne Cup and Derby Day. 75% of the tickets were provided in her current role.

Liberal Senator Andrew Bragg, who chaired a Senate committee in 2021-2022 that recommended against a proposed ban using credit cards for online gambling, is the parliament's biggest recipient of gambling freebies after Michelle Rowland. Prior to, and post, Bragg’s work on the committee he accepted gifts and hospitality from the Australian Hotels Association, The Star Entertainment Group, and Tabcorp. Incidentally, Tabcorp made a submission to Bragg’s inquiry to oppose the ban on credit cards.

Liberal Senator Anne Ruston accepted tickets and hospitality from Sportsbet to attend the Australian Open Men's Semi Finals in 2022 when she was Minister for Families and Social Services with responsibility for implementing the National Consumer Protection Framework for Online Wagering, much of which wasn't implemented in her time in office. Ruston returned to the Australian Open as a guest of Sportsbet in 2023.

Special Minister of State Don Farrell declared tickets and hospitality from Tabcorp to attend the Melbourne Cup and Derby Day in 2019 and 2022. The most recent tickets from the Labor and Coalition donor were accepted after Farrell commissioned a parliamentary election inquiry which is examining donations reform, including real time disclosure and reducing the disclosure threshold to $1000.

Woolies’ spinoff Endeavour Group, Australia’s largest pokies operator with around 12,500 gaming machines via its ALH Hotel subsidiary, is the most popular gambling shareholding by a big margin. Five Labor or Coalition MPs own shares: Dr David Gillespie; Graham Perrett; Ted O'Brien; Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah and her partner via their self-managed super fund; and Tony Zappia. And Labor MPs Sally Sitou and Dr Mike Freelander have declared their spouses own shares. Liberal James Stevens is a former Endeavour shareholder.

The Opposition's Shadow Climate Change Minister Ted O’Brien is the most invested in the gambling industry. In addition to his Endeavour shares, O'Brien has holdings in Tabcorp and the Lottery Corporation, Australia’s largest lottery business with well known brands Powerball, Instant Scratch-Its, Keno, Oz Lotto, and TattsLotto. He previously held shares in The Star Entertainment Group which he ‘inadvertently’ didn’t declare to the 45th parliament (2016 – 2019).

Labor MP Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah is another who seems to like gambling profits. In addition to her Endeavour shareholding, she and her partner invest via their self-managed super fund in the Waratah Hotel Group fund, which owns several licensed venues with poker machines in NSW and Queensland. Waratah's pokies revenue was $7.6 million in 2022 and $10.1 million in 2021.

Another doctor in the House, Dr Sophie Scamps, used to invest in Waratah Hotel Group with her husband before divesting in mid December 2022. The next month Scamps tweeted that pokies prey on the vulnerable and are a scourge on society.

Finally we have first term Liberal MP Keith Wolahan. He is a member of a parliamentary inquiry into online gambling harm that is examining the impacts of betting advertising, and at the same time invests in the Vanguard Australian Shares High Yield ETF, which has small shareholdings in Tabcorp, The Lottery Corporation, The Star Entertainment Group. The Lottery Corporation made a submission pleading for lotteries to be excluded from any further advertising restrictions, while Tabcorp surprised people by calling in its submission for a ban on gambling ads between 6.30 am and 8.30 pm, though some commentators have argued Tabcorp is just trying to protect its dominant market position from start ups. While we've found no evidence Wolahan's investment has interfered with his committee work - in fact he criticised SBS for running World Cup betting ads at 6.45 am - in our view it still creates an appearance of a conflict of interest that risks harming public confidence in the inquiry's work.

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