Australia's most controversial Christian
What happened when Roger Corbett found himself a pokies industry leader
Roger Corbett may be Australia’s most controversial Christian. He’s been a stunningly successful CEO and Chair of Woolworths, and chair of Fairfax too.
But it is his current role as chair of ALH (Australia Leisure and Hospitality) that draws a tremendous amount of extremely hostile criticism from fellow Christians
That is because ALH is the largest pub chain in Australia with over 330 venues and, more to the point, 12,000 poker machines. Fairfax media reported that in 2016 ALH pubs and clubs across Australia made an estimated $1.1 billion in net revenue from poker machines.
“Nationally, regular players’ typical poker expenditure amounted to roughly $228 million dollars over the year”, according to Australian Institute for Family Studies research in 2015.
“I do not see how a prominent Christian can head a powerful pokies industry.” – Tim Costello
“This equated to an estimated annual spend of $1,758 per regular poker player.” Which was the highest average amount spent on a single activity. AIFS research also found that, “In 2015, 46% of all regular poker players – 60,000 adults – experienced one or more gambling-related problems during the year. That is, their gambling behaviour caused or put them at risk of harm.”
Asked by Eternity if a Christian could run a gambling company, Tim Costello director of the Alliance for Pokie Reform and Executive Director of Micah Australia responds, “Well you’d have to ask that man that question. My answer is ‘absolutely not’.
“Just as Christians needed to say, ‘well we treat our slaves well and we are kind to them, and we even preach the gospel…’ No! Slavery is wrong and a Christian could not, should not be owning another person. I personally believe that when we know that the devastation and addiction from pokies particularly in the poorest postcodes with over 400 suicides a year – I do many of the funerals who suicide – I do not see how a prominent Christian can head a powerful pokies industry. For me it is unequivocal. I can’t see how a Christian can do that.”
“Roger Corbett, the chair of Woolworths subsidiary ALH, says it’s OK to have 12,000 pokies because they are legal. Using that moral compass, I guess we should stay tuned for Woollies to start running brothels.” – Stephen Judd in the SMH
“It is disappointing that a committed Christian like Roger Corbett is presiding over the world’s biggest suburban poker machine business, particularly given the recent reports about aggressive Woolworths practices targeting gamblers to maximise their losses”.
In a letter to the editor published in The Sydney Morning Herald, Stephen Judd, who heads the independent Christian charity Hammondcare (but writing in a personal capacity), expressed a similar view but rather more pithily. “Roger Corbett, the chair of Woolworths subsidiary ALH, says it’s OK to have 12,000 pokies because they are legal. Using that moral compass, I guess we should stay tuned for Woollies to start running brothels. A new revenue stream for the aptly named Australian Leisure and Hospitality!” (“Woolworths edges away from poker machines”, March 2).
Meeting Roger Corbett
With such a long business career, it is hard to pick the best deal the companies led by Corbett ever made but the deals that formed ALH would have to be up there.
Here’s how The Sydney Morning Herald describes that deal: “At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney the then Woolworths boss Roger Corbett enjoyed a chance meeting with Bruce Mathieson, a Melbourne-based pub baron who had been one of the first in the industry to recognise how much money could be made from the pokie machines that were then starting to spread through the nation’s local pubs.
“Corbett and Mathieson cut a deal and created a joint venture, Australian Leisure & Hospitality Group (ALH), to take over pub businesses in Queensland. ALH bought the Foster’s pub business, and in one move took over 131 pubs around the country.”
It was a clever way to beat Coles, especially in Queensland where bottle shops were tied to pubs. But it also hooked Woolworths on gambling.
“I am grateful to Jesus Christ that he is my saviour and my lord; I am in his hands. He has served me well over 75 years of which over 70 of which I have been a Christian.” – Roger Corbett
There is no doubt that Roger Corbett is one of this country’s most successful business executives. He was CEO of Woolworths from 1999 to 2006 which included setting up the ALH joint venture. He has been chair of two large companies – Woolworths and Fairfax – a former member of the Reserve Bank board, and sat on the board of Walmart, the US-based retailer that is the world’s largest company by revenue. In 2016 Corbett was appointed chair of ALH. In 2012 Smart Company ranked him as the ninth most powerful person in Australian boardrooms.
He has also been a key player in Christian circles. He is currently a Vice President of Crusaders, a schools ministry in NSW, ACT and WA, a former member of key committees of the Sydney Anglican Diocese and a former chair of the Shore School Council.
Corbett boldly declared he was supporting the “no” side in last year’s same sex marriage postal survey, on the ABC’s 7.30 program. “Jesus said that if you are ashamed of me one day I will be ashamed of you,” Corbett tells Eternity. “I am grateful to Jesus Christ that he is my saviour and my lord; I am in his hands. He has served me well over 75 years of which over 70 of which I have been a Christian. This relationship is so fundamental to my everyday life that I would be a hypocrite if I did not testify to it publicly.”
Asked if he is concerned that some Christians are ashamed of him he responds, “I don’t like people being ashamed of me. I can’t think of very many people I am ashamed of who are Christians. Because I am not in their shoes, I can’t judge them. No one else is in Roger Corbett’s shoes but Roger Corbett. I will only be ashamed if Jesus is ashamed of me.”
“Well I have been involved in ALH since its origins. When the Woolworths board made the decision to join in partnership with Mathiesons in a small chain of hotels in Queensland and then later a national involvement, I was part of that board at that time.
“This has given me a unique opportunity to me, that is really afforded to no-one else, to be the chairman of this company and to use all my influence that I can possibly bring to make sure that in the delivery of those company’s services – serving liquor both on premises and off premises and also providing gambling services – that they are as responsible and as sensitive to the downside of both these products as they can possibly be.
“There is a great difference between being a rule maker and a player.” – Roger Corbett
“And over these years I am confident that I have had the opportunity to have a fair influence over the outcomes of the company in this position.”Asked to specify what a patron would see different in an ALH pub, Corbett tells Eternity “I have recently had the opportunity to sit down with all the regulators in Australia. And, being the biggest hotel company in Australia, the regulators look to ALH to set the standards. And many of them have a high regard for the standards ALH has achieved. For example we are the only hotel company right across Australia that has pre-commitment.
“Pre-commitment allows people to eliminate themselves totally from gambling, it enables them to pre-describe how much they will spend on gambling, or how long they will spend on gambling. This is the only chain in Australia that offers these services.”
“We have trained counsellors in our gaming rooms to spot people who have problems in an endeavour to help them. We have chaplain arrangements with the Salvation Army and others to support people who have a problem in this direction.”
Corbett draws a big distinction between his role as a business man, with fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, and his critics’ roles.
“Do I make a difference by being there? I am absolutely confident that I do make a difference. One of the major reasons for me being there is to have influence and to give leadership in this direction.” – Roger Corbett
“There is a great difference between being a rule maker and a player. And I think some of the presentations of Costello, Xenophon and Wilkie and others are in the area of the rules. And if they want to change the rules and if the community wants to change the rules, well let the rules be changed. But the attitude of the players – well they have to play within the existing rules.”
Eternity presses Corbett on whether he really is making a difference.
“First of all I ask myself two questions … I could always walk away from this. Would it make any difference if I walked away? Would it make it any better?
“Pokies in Australia … are our blind spot like guns are in America.’ We all know about the NRA capturing politicians. We are now awake to the politician-capturing power of this money.” – Tim Costello
“The answer I think is “no”. But do I make a difference by being there? I am absolutely confident that I do make a difference. One of the major reasons for me being there is to have influence and to give leadership in this direction.
“The community has voted that these services will be available. That is not to us to control.
“My conclusion is that they [pokies] will be here for a long time yet. If it is not this form of gambling there will be another form of gambling. But we are absolutely responsible in delivering our services.”
The pokies issue has been heightened by the Tasmanian and South Australian elections, despite the declared anti-pokies parties losing each time. (In Tasmania, the ALP wanted to get rid of pokies, in SA the Nick Xenophon team wanted to cut them back drastically.)
“Massive amounts of pokies money actually buy an election,” Costello tells Eternity. “Spending ten-to-one for those parties that wanted to get rid of the pokies, they were out spent. So, it means that in NSW and Victoria with their elections, every journalist will be saying ‘Pokies in Australia – where we have 20 per cent of the world’s pokies – are our blind spot like guns are in America.’ We all know about the NRA capturing politicians. We are now awake to the politician-capturing power of this money.”
And a confession of sorts
So far this article has divided Christians into two camps, the pragmatic Corbett camp and the social justice warrior sort of Christian campaigners against pokies. But there’s a third group – of which this writer is one. Let’s change scene, to outside a Bunnings hardware store, in an outer suburb where each weekend local charity groups run barbecues.
Sometimes you’ll find me there, raising money for a small disability sports club. A good days barbecuing on a sunny day raises about $2000.
But grants from local clubs actually provide more funds to keep the athletes paying their sport. In fact, local social clubs are very generous with their grants. Without the support of a few local pokie-fuelled social clubs we’d need to Bunning barbecue a lot more often – if we could get on the Bunnings roster more often. Those slots are keenly sought.
So not being keen to do more barbecues – I guess I am a tiny bit complicit in the gambling industry. In researching this story I found our small club was cited as a case study of club charity funding in the Productivity Commission inquiry into gambling. Fame of a sort.
So I remain keen to keep volunteering for the club, keen to support neuro-diverse people, but fully aware that gambling money supports its work. This makes it much harder to criticise Roger Corbett.