'NSW Premier taking on the gambling lobby finds himself embroiled in a costume drama'

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By Mick Le Moignan

Most Australians try to extend their summer holiday as far into January as they can. Journalists are no exception, so this month’s newspapers usually feature lots of stories about cricket and tennis stars and favourite beaches and ice-cream flavours.

So it was a surprise to see the NSW Premier, Dominic Perrotet, blazing across all the front pages on 12 January, confessing to any reporters who were not at the beach that he (like Prince Harry) had worn a Nazi uniform, hired from a fancy dress shop, to his 21st birthday party.

Perrotet, who moved from the Treasury to the Premiership when Gladys Berejiklian admitted a secret love affair with a corrupt fellow MP, is a 41-year-old father of seven and the leader of the Catholic conservative faction of the NSW Liberal Party. It was neither his early right-wing sympathies nor his taste for confession that surprised: it was the delay of more than 20 years in raising the matter.

Perrotet is a conviction politician, who trusts his own judgment and does what he believes is right, for himself, his family or the State. Facing an election on 25 March and running behind Labor in the polls, he has chosen to take on the powerful hotels and social clubs lobby: he is proposing a radical policy to cut the profits that clubs make from people gambling on the clubs’ high-stakes poker machines. He aims to replace cash with a cashless betting card, thereby removing winners’ anonymity.

There are over 90,000 poker machines across NSW. They are the principal source of funding for hundreds of clubs, which offer cheap meals and alcohol to attract punters, who often negate the good value they receive by ‘blowing a few dollars on the pokies’. Australian clubs are much like UK pubs, usually run by Rugby League teams, bowling clubs and the Returned Servicemen’s League.

Some punters fail to control their spending, become ‘problem gamblers’ and, in the most severe cases, inflict great hardship and suffering on their families as a result. These people are a part of Perrotet’s concern, but his main target is gangs of organised criminals who launder vast amounts of drug profits and other illegal money through the pokies.

The hotels and clubs lobby has deep pockets. They donate lavishly to both major political parties, precisely to head off such threats as this.

Early in January, a member of Perrotet’s Cabinet, Transport Minister David Elliott, openly opposed the cashless gaming card proposal. Before politics, Elliott was executive officer of the Australian Hotels Association. He continued as a director of the Castle Hill RSL Club for five years after his election. His son works for global poker machine manufacturer Aristocrat. No conflict of interests there, then.

Perrotet said his confession had been prompted by one of his ministers ‘warning him’ that his opponents were about to release the story of his poor choice of fancy dress, years ago. Perrotet refused to name the minister but others revealed it was Elliott. If the intention was blackmail, it didn’t work, because Perrotet ’fessed up. If it was an attempt to ensure defeat in the election, Elliott won’t suffer, because he is stepping down after making one gaffe too many in his portfolio.

Perrotet apologised fully and humbly for his youthful poor judgment. Other ministers rallied around him and Jewish leaders said his guilt was largely expiated by his generous past support, as treasurer, for Jewish causes, notably the Sydney Jewish Museum’s Holocaust education programme.

There is broad agreement across the community that the omnipresent pokies are a blight on society and must be curbed. This was an opportunity for the opposition Labor Party to embrace Perrotet’s proposal and stop the rot, whoever wins the election. It is probably the poorer, traditional Labor supporters who are hardest hit by poker-machine losses – but Labor leader Chris Minns chose to oppose the government initiative rather than give bipartisan support.

Minns promised an immediate ban on donations to political parties by poker-machine owners and a cashless card trial on 500 poker machines – leaving over 99% to launder the proceeds of crime in the usual way.

The Sydney Morning Herald, always a reliable barometer of public opinion, replied with a prominent editorial headed: ‘NSW Labor’s pokies pledge falls short.’

Labor may have miscalculated on this and the other major reform Perrotet is taking to the March election. Currently, home-buyers have to pay around 5% of the purchase price upfront in stamp duty. This tax makes it much more difficult, particularly for first-home buyers, to save the money needed for a deposit.

Since his time as treasurer, Perrotet has wanted to replace stamp duty with an annual land tax. He sees the duty as a disincentive to ‘empty-nesters’ still living in large houses after their children have left home. They often choose to stay put, rather than pay duty on a new purchase.

Labor claim the proposal is a poorly disguised tax hike and are mounting a scare campaign to that effect.

Perrotet proposes initially to abolish stamp duty on properties up to $1.5m (£840,000). He argues that a purchaser of a modest home in the Sydney suburbs costing $1.1m would pay about $1,300 pa in land tax, while saving over $42,000 on stamp duty.

Labor has a scheme which would also benefit first-home buyers, but it seems again as if its main purpose is to present an alternative. When governments get it right, oppositions can win respect from simply supporting them and moving on to the next issue.

Labor is ahead in the polls but the election is two months away and polls have been wrong before. As Jersey people know, the best politicians listen, instead of just lecturing. Those who fail to hear the concerns of the electorate receive their comeuppance at the ballot box. That’s why fascists and would-be dictators are so critical of the democratic process.

Premier Perrotet is no Nazi and his youthful indiscretion should be forgiven and forgotten.

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