Communications Minister Michelle Rowland, who has a key role in gambling policy, received $19,000 in donations from Sportsbet on the eve of last year’s election when she was shadow minister in charge of online betting.
The sports-betting giant paid $8960 for a dinner to support Rowland’s election campaign at Rockpool, a Sydney restaurant popular with politicians and business people, in March. On May 19, three days before the federal election, Sportsbet paid $10,000 to Rowland’s campaign.
The $10,000 donation was detailed by Sportsbet in its disclosure to the Australian Electoral Commission, but Labor’s NSW branch did not declare either payment because they were lower than the mandatory threshold for disclosure. The Rockpool dinner was confirmed by four gambling and government sources, speaking anonymously because they were not authorised to comment publicly.
News of the gifts prompted a former counsel assisting at NSW’s Independent Commission Against Corruption to argue Rowland had created a conflict of interest in accepting the money before becoming the key decision-maker on policies affecting Sportsbet as the minister who oversees the Interactive Gambling Act and the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
Social Affairs Minister Amanda Rishworth oversees other elements of gambling regulation.
Geoffrey Watson, SC, who led ICAC’s prosecution in several campaign finance-related cases, said donations to party branches were a problem but argued the Rowland example was controversial because the dinner was hosted personally for Rowland.
“It’s much worse when it is a peak industry player in your own portfolio,” he said. “It just screams of the potential for favouritism and gives rise to a concern about a conflict of interest. I don’t think political parties should be taking money from big gambling.”
Rowland’s spokeswoman did not answer questions about who else attended, whether she received other donations from bookmakers, or whether it was appropriate to accept the money. “All donations the minister receives are compliant with the AEC’s disclosure requirements,” she said.
The online gambling sector’s peak body – Responsible Wagering Australia, which includes Sportsbet as the biggest industry player – is lobbying Rowland about a move to prohibit the use of credit cards to gamble.
While the sector supports the principle of the ban, it does not want the government to amend the Interactive Gambling Act.
The four gambling sources said betting firms feared any parliamentary debate on the legislation because anti-gambling MPs across the political spectrum could join forces to propose more radical legislative changes that could crimp the firms’ revenue.
“Sportsbet and the rest of them are scared of this bill coming up for debate because they know which way the momentum is moving,” a source said.
Rowland’s office is also talking with the industry about a national self-exclusion register which would allow problem gamblers to block themselves from online wagering sites. The start date for the program, called BetStop, has been delayed by several years.
The sector requested a delay to the rollout until after last year’s spring racing carnival, government and gambling sources said, because embedding a new IT system into its network could present difficulties at a time of heightened demand.
A Responsible Wagering Australia spokeswoman has confirmed it had raised new concerns with the government about the potential for BetStop, which would collect user data, to be hacked.
She said amid “the fallout of the recent Optus and Medibank data breaches, it is imperative that BetStop is secured against data thieves”.
The spokeswoman argued the act was a poor way to restrict the use of credit cards because people would still use those cards on offshore gambling websites.
Rowland is also the president of the Labor Party branch in NSW, the state in which gambling companies are prohibited from giving money to state MPs and candidates. NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet is preparing to ban political donations from registered clubs.
Research from the Centre for Public Integrity posits that $1 billion in donations has been effectively hidden from public view over the past two decades because individual donations contained in the aggregate amount fell below the amount at which public disclosure is required. This figure currently sits at $15,200.
Sportsbet donated $278,000 in 2021-22, $143,000 to the Coalition and $135,000 to Labor.
A spokesman for Sportsbet, who noted non-online bookmakers also donated heavily, said: “Sportsbet’s donations are disclosed in accordance with the law.”
The Albanese government, which won the election promising to act with integrity, has flagged its intention to lower the disclosure cap to $1000 as part of a broader suite of changes to make politics more transparent.
Australians are some of the biggest users of online sports betting in the world. Losses in 2021, as some people had more money to spend amid lockdowns, grew by $3.2 billion to $7.1 billion, as shown by figures from consultancy H2 Gambling Capital.
The government is also mulling clampdowns on the online betting sector, government sources confirmed. Concurrently, Labor backbencher Peta Murphy is chairing a parliamentary committee probing reforms such as restricting gambling advertising, which is supported by many Labor, Greens and independent MPs as well as Coalition members such as former speaker Andrew Wallace.
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