Gambling industry’s dozens of free event tickets to federal MPs raise fears of potential conflicts of interest

About 150 free tickets to sports, shows and hospitality have been given to politicians since the 2019 election, according to analysis

The gambling industry has given federal politicians about 150 free tickets to sporting events, shows and hospitality since the 2019 election, raising concerns from transparency advocates about the potential for perceived conflicts of interest.

The majority of gifts – according to analysis of parliament’s interest registers by transparency organisation Open Politics – have been provided by Tabcorp. Sportsbet, Star Entertainment, Australian Hotels Association and ClubsNSW have also given gifts to politicians.

There is no suggestion these gifts have influenced decision making in government or opposition but transparency advocates have raised concerns about perceived conflicts of interest.

The communications minister, Michelle Rowland, who was criticised for accepting donations from Sportsbet before the 2022 federal election, has accepted 10 free tickets from Tabcorp for herself and others since coming to office. As minister, she has a role in gambling policy.

Between May 2019 and May 2022, a period when Rowland was shadow communications minister, she accepted 17 tickets from the gambling industry, according to the Open Politics analysis. That included two tickets from Star Entertainment to see the musical Hamilton on 6 November 2021, as well as hospitality for herself and three others earlier that week. Rowland also accepted free tickets and hospitality from Tabcorp for herself and four others to the Melbourne Cup carnival at Randwick racecourse on 2 November 2021.

Last month Rowland told the ABC she would no longer accept political donations from gambling companies after sustained criticism. When the Guardian contacted her office for comment on the gifts, a spokesperson said the minister and the Albanese government were committed to reducing gambling harms.

“All donations the minister receives are compliant with the disclosure requirements of the Australian Electoral Commission, the register of members’ interests and the ministerial code of conduct,” the spokesperson said.

Rowland is not the only communications minister to have received free tickets and hospitality from gambling companies. The former communications minister Paul Fletcher attended the Melbourne Cup in 2019 with his spouse at the invitation of Tabcorp and Network Ten, noting in his disclosure that “both are stakeholders in my portfolio”.

The Liberal senator Anne Ruston attended the semi-final of the Australian Open as a guest of Sportsbet in January last year, while serving as social services minister. This year she attended the same fixture while serving as shadow minister for sport.

Fletcher and Ruston have both been contacted for comment.

Sportsbet declined to comment. A Tabcorp spokesperson said the company always acted in compliance with parliamentary rules. “Tabcorp is very transparent about hosting key stakeholders, including members of parliament, at major racing and sports events across Australia. That is well known.”

The Centre for Public Integrity’s executive director, Han Aulby, said if ministers did not want there to be any perceived conflict of interest, they should “avoid accepting gifts from companies operating within their portfolio”.

“Private companies will be looking for a return on any investment. In the case of gifts to ministers, they may be seeking preferential treatment or access,” Aulby said.

Transparency International Australia’s chief executive, Clancy Moore, said there was a clear conflict of interest if ministers are regularly accepting gifts from industries within their portfolios.

“While accepting gifts is not technically illegal, it does raise serious questions,” Moore said. “It’s even more problematic when a minister ostensibly responsible for the regulation of gambling is accepting thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets, perks and alcohol from some of gambling’s biggest names.”

AJ Brown, a professor of public policy and law at Griffith University, said disclosure was the minimum standard politicians and ministers should be required to meet.

“The people in those positions do seriously have to ask themselves why they are being targeted with these gifts and whether just declaring them is enough, as it definitely does have the potential to compromise public confidence in their objectivity,” Brown said.

The Open Politics founder, Sean Johnson, compared the gifts to political donations and said they were an attempt to “influence parliamentarians to support or not hinder their commercial interests”.

“While there’s no hard evidence connecting gambling gifts and hospitality with favourable regulatory outcomes, we know the industry is not providing these benefits because they ‘support democracy’,” Johnson said.


Henry Belot

The GuardianTramp

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