Published: 07 February 2022

AS Dickens may have said, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, it was the age of self-sacrifice, it was the age of greed.

The past few years have had all and more. Covid has shown what can happen. Our response shows what we can do. Self-sacrifice, particularly from essential service workers, has been extraordinary.

We have experienced first-hand the shortcomings of our system. We have seen first-hand how to fix it. And we have seen first-hand how greedy self-entitlement and opportunism is never far away.

Federal Hotels posted its 2020-21 financials almost three months late.

Known for its metronomic regularity for lodging on time before the due date of October 31 each year, the late lodgement, which was blamed on a cyber-attack, meant parliament was robbed of the benefit of examining Federal Hotels' latest financial position to assess whether the special deals in the gaming reform Bills were needed.

They weren't.

Federal Hotels posted its highest ever profit of $60 million profit before tax for the 2020-21 year the previous highest was $48 million in 2004-05.

Yet the Legislative Council was presented with bogus arguments that Federal Hotels needed a special lower rate of tax on its casino poker machines worth $15 million a year because a couple of north Queensland casinos had been given lower rates in the past as an incentive for those casinos to be built.

The Tasmanian casinos were built and paid for years ago, so the argument was spurious. It is locals who play the machines, and the rates should be the same as for community-based pubs and clubs. We were conned.

Included in the latest record profits was $20 million of JobKeeper.

This followed $20 million in the previous year, making a total of $40 million.

It's easy to work out just over 2000 employees at $750 per week for 26 weeks equals $40 million. But was it actually needed to keep jobs?

Bottle sales skyrocketed, gambling quickly roared back into action after a short lockdown, the transport and logistics business was remarkably resilient.

These all helped offset the downturn in accommodation sales. The tsunami of cash was used to pay $17.5 million of dividends to family shareholders and reduce bank borrowings by a staggering $65 million.

Federal Hotels has not handed back any JobKeeper, to my knowledge.

The special deals to give Federal Hotels even more, and which I argued against in Parliament, was way beyond reasonable.

Federal Hotels was not the only one with an enhanced sense of entitlement. The second largest operator of poker machines in pubs, with a large bottle shop business aimed at the local market, survived Covid better than most. It would have received a bonanza from JobKeeper which it didn't need.

With 400 employees at $750 per week for 26 weeks, that's $8 million. Enough to buy another pub. Which it did.

Yet they sat across the table from us at a parliamentary briefing, pleaded hardship, urging us into passing the gaming legislation immediately. They stated Covid had delayed matters and the industry needed certainty to transition to the new licence system in 18 months. They demanded we act immediately. They didn't want more scrutiny. Now we know why.

The parliamentary process failed the people of Tasmania.

For the first time in my 16 years in parliament we had a chance to raise taxes to a reasonable level where profitability was maintained but super-profits were taxed more fairly, and to ensure players did not lose as much, with lower spin rates and bet limits. The specific aim of gaming reform, to achieve a more appropriate sharing of the spoils, was forgotten.

The Labor Party conspired with industry to stifle the discussion. Labor's Light on the Hill no longer flickers. It's replaced with a gaudy pokie pub which, like the legendary Sirens seducing wayward sailors, beckons the poor and disadvantaged to empty their wallets.

We can do little about the unwarranted handouts to a privileged few for the next 20 years, but we can ensure we lessen the chances of future acts of egregious self-interest.

Real-time disclosure of capped donations to political parties would be a good start.

Also a public register of lobbyists and when they meet with government.

One thing for certain is the need to recognise the lessons of Covid, that we not only acknowledge the self-sacrifice of essential workers, but we actively plan and fund a better system for them to work in, and that we tilt the balance to the unmet essentials of the majority of Tasmanians away from the self-interests of a few.

May we look forward to a spring of hope.

The Mercury, Saturday 5 February 2022

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