FATHER Chris Riley, the latest face in the clubs’ campaign to block pokies reform, accepted $50,000 for a youth centre operated by his charity from Len Ainsworth, the founder of Australia’s largest gaming machine company, Aristocrat Leisure.
Father Riley’s charity, Youth Off The Streets, also appears to have a longstanding connection with the Ainsworths – Mr Ainsworth’s daughter-in-law, Anna Ainsworth, has been on the board of the charity since 2002 and was its chairwoman from 2008 until early this year.
Like many charities, Youth Off The Streets also receives funding made available by clubs – $122,325 in 2011.
But Father Riley’s decision this week to publicly back Clubs Australia’s efforts to block the introduction of mandatory pre-commitment has prompted swift condemnation from churches, politicians and other groups who are advocating poker machine reform.
The chairman of the Australian Churches Gambling Taskforce, Tim Costello, said Father Riley was ”conflicted” because his organisation accepted money from the clubs, including the Bankstown Sports Club.
”If you take the dollar and be their face, you have to explain that conflict.”
The independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who has demanded the reforms in return for supporting the government, concurred.
”He is being paid by the industry,” he said.
The No Pokies senator, Nick Xenophon, said Father Riley had ”bought the poker machine lobby’s lies hook line and sinker”.
The Education Minister, Peter Garrett, one of the few Labor MPs in the firing line prepared to hit back at the clubs, took issue with Father Riley’s claim that counselling and education were adequate safeguards.
Mr Garrett said problem gambling was a scourge in his electorate of Kingsford Smith.
But other backbenchers, who oppose Mr Wilkie’s demand and want a trial first, were buoyed by Father Riley’s stance and said Mr Wilkie should negotiate because the numbers did not exist in the House of Representatives to pass necessary legislation by his May 31 deadline.
Father Riley said his stance was about standing up to Mr Wilkie.
”I think the most important thing for me is the randomness of policies, which frustrates me; that a minority incumbent has the incredible power to make such a big decision against pubs and clubs, and I just don’t think that’s fair,” he said.
”At the end of the day it’s not about gambling for me,” Father Riley said. ”Its about … an independent who holds a government … to ransom.”
The Catholic Social Services Australia executive director, Paul O’Callaghan, said Father Riley’s stance was disappointing given the evidence that showed counselling alone was not enough to deal with problem gambling.
”It’s unfortunate perhaps that Father Riley had come out in this way linked so directly to the clubs’ position, because obviously the clubs have a particular commercial interest in this.”
Father Riley told the Herald he briefly met Mr Ainsworth the first time at the opening of the charity’s new $7.2 million youth centre last week.
He said the relationship with Mr Ainsworth was fostered by the former MP Tony Stewart, the chairman of Youth Off The Streets’ overseas relief fund, rather than Anna Ainsworth.
”He made a $50,000 donation to our Macquarie Fields youth centre through his own charity, I believe, and that’s the first time he’s ever been involved with us,” Father Riley said.
He said he had ”never” had any involvement with the gaming companies associated with the Ainsworth family. But a 2010 Youth Off The Streets newsletter thanks Aristocrat among the corporate partners helping to bring ”much needed Christmas cheer” to youth in 2009.
Mrs Ainsworth referred queries back to the charity.