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Former chief minister Jon Stanhope calls for ACT Labor to cut ties with clubs and pokies

Jon Stanhope has forced the issue of ACT Labor's ownership of the ACT Labor clubs back on the agenda.
Jon Stanhope has forced the issue of ACT Labor's ownership of the ACT Labor clubs back on the agenda. Photo: Tony McDonoough

Former chief minister Jon Stanhope has forced the issue of ACT Labor's ownership of the Canberra Labor clubs back on the agenda, putting a motion to his party sub-branch calling for the clubs to be sold.

Labor's links to the clubs have come to the fore this week with Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson and anti-gambling groups accusing the party of moral bankruptcy over its ownership and regulation of the clubs. The Labor Club group owns 488 poker machines, which make $25 million a year.

Mr Stanhope said his call was not related to recent controversy, but a long-held view that Labor should not be associated with gambling, especially poker machines. When he was chief minister, the party came close to selling the club group, but the deal fell apart after what he described as a completely inappropriate federal intervention.

Five years later, it was time to put the issue back on the agenda. 

"My very strong view is that the Labor Party should not be in a position where it's perceived as owning poker machines and facilitating gambling," he said.

"Everybody knows of the negative consequences which the Labor Party suffers as a result of its association with gambling...

"I don't believe any decisions that I or my government took were influenced by the Labor Party's ownership of the Labor clubs, but there is a massive perception of a conflict, and sometimes perception, of course, is as significant as an actuality."

Mr Stanhope defended the clubs as doing enormous good in the community, but said they should be in other hands – especially given the big increase in public funding agreed by the Assembly last year, which made clubs funding far less important for Labor.

The major parties voted for a four-fold increase in public funding, from $2 a vote to $8 a vote. At $8 a vote, Labor and the Liberals would each have received $690,000 in public funding after the 2012 election.

Mr Stanhope's motion is expected to be debated by his Mount Rogers sub-branch in February.

Asked about disquiet within the party at his decision to put the issue back on the agenda, Mr Stanhope said he had been "quite innocently" looking for a conversation in his sub-branch.

"I can't understand how anybody within the Labor Party would object to discussing matters of importance to the Labor Party," he said. "I thought that's what democracy within the Labor Party was about: the right to talk about things."

ACT Labor secretary Matt Byrne said if the motion was passed by the sub-branch it would probably go to the branch council or annual conference.

But he questioned the way in which Mr Stanhope had chosen to raise it.  

"I don't think a motion from Jon Stanhope at his local sub-branch is going to convince the board of the Labor Club to close down," he said. "It's clearly not as simple as that."

The view was echoed by Canberra Labor Club president Tony Luchetti, who said the board was independent of the party and would not take instruction from it. Six members of the nine-member board are appointed by the party, but Mr Luchetti said their obligation was to club members.

"If we took instructions from anyone we would be in trouble with the gaming commission and the federal bodies, we cannot take outside influence," he said, suggesting Mr Stanhope was simply seeking "a bit of publicity" after two years' isolation on Christmas Island.

A sale had not been on the club's agenda for five years and there were no plans to revisit it, he said.

Former deputy chief minister Ted Quinlan also rejected the sale idea.

"Provided the while process is legitimate and run properly, I dont see why the Labor Club can't continue as the Labor Club," he said.

While poker machines "do represent a problem" and "it might be nice to wash our hands of that", he said Labor's participation had been good for the  industry. "We've upheld the standards that ought to be upheld in the club industry so our participation has just cemented that," he said.

He had not come across people saying the clubs should be sold and had not any any indication of  "a political disbenefit" in continuing to own the clubs. 

"I think Canberra has benefited over many years from a well run, well organised and well-regulated club industry ... and I don't see why we should walk away from being involved in that, quite frankly."

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