Sunday, May 17, 2009

Just look who's talking, Mr Premier, by Peter Rolfe - Sunday Herald Sun - 15th May 2009

Premier John Brumby has come under attack for reversing his hard-line stance on casino deals that deliver extra revenue to gaming operators without public debate.

Former premier Jeff Kennett broke his silence on the issue yesterday as a Sunday Herald Sun analysis of parliamentary documents and public statements revealed Mr Brumby and Attorney-General Rob Hulls were scathing of the Kennett government's plans to introduce 150 new gambling tables at Crown casino in 1995.

Mr Kennett claimed they said expanding the casino was "unjustifiable" and "irresponsible".

During the week, the Brumby Government announced a similar deal to add 150 new gaming tables to Crown, a staged increase in tax rates for gaming machines and an increase in the casino's gaming area.

Mr Kennett said that after "violently opposing" his casino deal and the Formula One Grand Prix in Opposition, the Brumby Government was now "hugging them so tightly it is almost sexual".

He said the Government had been "less than transparent", but did not blame Mr Brumby for "trading off" a tax rise for gaming machines at the casino for more tables.

"The Premier of the day and his Government have the right to make any decision they like and it will be tested by Parliament," he said.

"I think the mistake here is that it hasn't been done openly and, in fact, it seems to have been dragged out by the media and the Opposition in terms of trying to get Mr Brumby to tell how and where the deal was made."

The Opposition has written to Auditor-General Des Pearson urging him to launch an urgent review into the deal, which it said was shrouded in secrecy and against the interests of taxpayers.

It estimated the tables would lead to gambling losses of $1 billion in the next 10 years.

But the Government was standing by its position, saying its latest deal is the right thing to do.

As Opposition leader, Mr Brumby's 1995 policy was for Crown to have no more than 200 tables.

The proposed deal would push the number of tables at Crown to 500 and see a tax rise of 10 per cent on the casino's 2500 gaming machines.

A 1995 press release sent out by Mr Brumby as Opposition leader was titled "Casino culture not the way forward for Victoria."

In 1997, Mr Hulls told Parliament that "under no circumstances" should the government grant any concessions to the casino or change any licence conditions".

"People are sick and tired of their interests playing second fiddle to those of Crown casino," he said.

Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu said the Government had committed a "spectacular backflip".

"John Brumby's hypocrisy on gambling knows no bounds," he said.

As anti-gambling groups condemned the Crown deal, a spokesman for Mr Brumby last night defended his actions.

"This decision virtually equalises tax regimes between Crown and other gaming venues and enables Crown to effectively compete with casinos interstate and internationally," he said.

Crown founders Ron Walker and Lloyd Williams declined to comment on the casino agreement.

"I left Crown in 2000, it's now 2009 and I'm history," Mr Williams said.

Opposition gambling spokesman Michael O'Brien said the Government also had to explain why a new licence fee - similar to the $85 million deal done with Crown in 1995 - had not been announced.

"This is rolled gold hypocrisy from John Brumby - he's doing exactly the same thing that he was complaining about in 1995," he said.

Legislation endorsing the gaming changes is likely to be voted on along party lines when it goes to Parliament, meaning the Government will need all 19 Upper House members and two other MPs to pass it. (Credit: Sunday Herald Sun)

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