One of the state’s most powerful lobbyists has been sacked after triggering a political firestorm for linking Premier Dominic Perrottet’s Catholic faith to his gambling crackdown, leaving the ClubsNSW campaign against poker machine reform in tatters.
The organisation’s board fired Josh Landis with immediate effect on Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the polarising chief executive told the that the premier’s pursuit of cashless gaming cards was motivated by his “conservative Catholic gut” rather than evidence.
The incendiary comments sparked an unlikely alliance of cabinet ministers, independent MPs, religious groups, unions and NSW Labor leader Chris Minns to call for Landis’ scalp.
In a joint statement, the six-person ClubsNSW board led by rugby league and business identity George Peponis said it had met and after “careful consideration” decided to end his employment immediately.
“The board acknowledges Josh Landis’ exemplary service to the industry over more than 15 years through some very difficult times,” the board members said.
“We genuinely wish him all the best on his future endeavours. The board will consider its next steps and has no further comment at this time.”
Perrottet has been the driving force behind a push to turn the state’s 90,000-plus poker machines cashless and remains locked in negotiations with his colleagues over the policy, which is expected to be released in early February.
The demise of Landis leaves the lobby group searching for a new leader at a pivotal moment for the state’s gambling industry, which is facing the biggest reform to poker machines since they were introduced to clubs in 1956.
As the storm grew on Tuesday morning, Landis initially argued he “misspoke” during the interview. But as the threat to his career intensified, he then contacted Perrottet to apologise and also issued a grovelling public statement.
“I want to make it clear that in answering the question I misspoke and should not have referred to the premier’s faith,” Landis said in the statement.
“This was not a premeditated comment or an intentional attack on the premier personally. Rather it was a poor attempt to explain there is a lack of evidence for the policy and the premier is a moral person who intrinsically wants to help those who are causing themselves harm.”
Reacting to the news of Landis’ remarks and subsequent sacking on Tuesday, senior club executives said his comments had been unhelpful at a time when the industry needed to work with government.
Campbelltown Catholic Club chief executive officer Michael Lavorato said linking the pokies debate to Perrottet’s religion was unfortunate but should not distract from the broader issue.
“I think if Josh could have his way again he would choose his words a little more carefully. From our point of view … the premier’s faith hasn’t got anything to do with this debate. I wouldn’t have chosen those words,” he said.
“It’s an unhelpful distraction and I just keep reiterating, everybody has now taken their position. The government are the only ones that are lagging, yet they were the ones who have been making the noise … we just want to see what we’re dealing with.”
Mounties chief executive Dale Hunt said he believed Landis’ comments were a source of division at a time when clubs needed to be involved in broad policy reform.
“We run poker machines, and we run alcohol as well. Both come with a social responsibility,” Hunt said.
“Mounties supports gaming reform … I’m supportive of a cashless gaming card. But I would like to see those on the practical side [pubs and clubs] involved in the decision-making.”
NSW Labor has already released its gaming policy, which includes a mandatory cashless gaming trial of 500 machines and a gradual phase down of poker machine numbers.
Perrottet on Tuesday said Landis’ comments were “incredibly inappropriate and offensive” to people of faith across the state.
“Those comments aren’t an attack on me, they are an attack on every single person of faith in our state. We live in a tolerant state, a tolerant country, and there is no place for comments like that in modern Australia,” he said.
The statement announcing Landis’ termination was issued just minutes after Minns told 2GB radio his position was untenable.
“We just can’t have a situation in NSW politics where sectarian and divisive nature or commentary or even people’s ultimate motives are questioned on the basis of their religion when there’s absolutely no evidence of it,” the opposition leader said.
Minns headlined a chorus of NSW politicians calling for Landis’ scalp, including outgoing Cities Minister Rob Stokes and Customer Service Minister Victor Dominello.
Independent MPs Alex Greenwich, Joe McGirr and Helen Dalton also criticised the lobbyist’s attack on the premier and said his position was untenable.
Greenwich, a key proponent for the cashless gaming card and whose support for any minority government after the March 25 election may be conditional on pushing ahead with the reform, said Landis had presided over the transformation of community clubs into “mini-casinos”.
Landis’ decision to cite Perrottet’s Catholic faith was also condemned by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Australian Jewish Association. The Board of Deputies welcomed both his apology and resignation.
The now former ClubsNSW boss on Monday told this masthead that the lobby group supported voluntary cashless gaming but wanted to see further trials before any mandatory policy was enacted, arguing that he believed the premier would face difficulties in pursuing the reform.
“He’s going to struggle because he can’t satisfy everybody,” Landis said.
“I think it’s fair to say that the premier has very little understanding of this issue.”
Perrottet has not commented on Landis’ resignation.
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