For over 50 years a family little-known in Sydney society has controlled legal gambling in Tasmania.
Every single gaming machine in the state is theirs. The Keno is theirs. They own one of the two casinos and a controlling stake in the other. By one calculation, 70¢ of every dollar lost by a Tasmanian in a pokie machine finds its way straight into the Farrell family’s voluminous pockets.
And befitting a family of such stature, the Farrells have always seemed to know pretty well everyone in Tasmania too. If, say, a sports club or a community group needs a little help, the Farrells are only a phone call away. They have long been good to both sides of Tasmanian politics. They went so far as to hire the former Labor premier Paul Lennon as a lobbyist after he left office and were generous enough to overlook the miasma of graft and corruption allegations that accompanied his resignation.
Through it all the Farrells portrayed themselves as passionate about Tasmania, driven to help develop the island state they love, to foster investment and employment.
But now the family’s famous luck appears to have changed.
Tasmania is going to the polls on March 3 and after years of reliable bipartisan support, Labor is suddenly off script, vowing to rip pokies out every pub and club in the state.
Public support for the Farrell family enterprise appears to be fracturing. Both conservative and progressive groups have voiced support for Labor’s policy and newspaper headlines have begun to focus on one of the the family’s poorly kept secrets.
“Mainland gambling interests may fight to undermine ‘brave’ Labor pledge on pokies,” screamed Burnie’s Advocate newspaper last month.
Greg, Julie and Jane Farrell with horses Chance to Dance and A Vision Mi.
It turns out that the Farrells are mostly based in Sydney. The family company, Mulawa Holdings, which owns the Federal Group, which owns the casinos and the pokies, is registered in Chatswood. The Farrells own sprawling residences in Wahroonga, property in Dural and an Arabian horse stud at Berowra.
“These people have been taking between $10 and $15 million a year out of the state and taking it to Sydney to fund their bloody horse-breeding,” said one Tasmanian political operative this week. As with others Fairfax Media spoke with for this story, he was reluctant to be named.
Worse, the methods the family used to acquire such wealth and power in Tasmania are coming under renewed scrutiny.
David Walsh: from shy misfit to big-time gambler who founded MONA
One of the few certainties about Walsh’s life is that his luck has never been dumb. Since his student days, when he learnt to count cards so well that he was banned from casinos, he has used his rare gift for mathematics to tame the vagaries of chance and become one of the country’s biggest gamblers. He claims he wins more than $8 million a year as a member of the world’s largest gambling syndicate, the 12-person group known as the Bank Roll, and ploughs almost all of it back into MONA, which he says loses $8 million a year despite its enormous popularity.
It’s a precarious balance for a man who says he still owes $80 million to his best friend and gambling partner Zeljko Ranogajec for a loan to set up MONA, and who also has undisclosed debts to the Australian Taxation Office. This is why Walsh may be serious when he declares with a straight face that the main reason he has written an autobiography is for the money. “Now that people have something invested [in MONA] and Tasmanians often claim ownership of it — they call it our museum — I am looking to perpetuate it, so now the money does matter,” he says.
The Australian Electoral Commission’s annual returns, published on Thursday, revealed the extent of the cash poured into the political process – more than $207 million in total.
The disclosures show the major parties received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the big banks and major consultancy firms, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s $1.75 million gift to his own re-election campaign was by far the largest donation recorded.