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‘Labor thinks you’re stupid’: pokies lobby fights hard in Tasmanian election
It’s a blunt message for a blunt campaign, plastered on billboards above pubs across Tasmania.

“Labor and the Greens think you’re stupid. What’s next? Don’t let them tell you what to do.”

The ads are the work of Love Your Local, a campaign by pubs and clubs set up to fight Labor opposition leader Rebecca White over her historic pledge to remove poker machines from their venues. And they are fighting hard.

With a little more than a week to go until election day, Tasmanians have been bombarded with anti-Labor and pro-Liberal advertising – on TV, radio, newspapers, billboards and social media. The blitz began well before the election was called in late January.

Analysts believe it is almost certainly the most expensive election campaign in the state’s history, driven in part by a national gaming industry concerned to make sure the anti-pokies push does not spread to the mainland.

The Love Your Local campaign has run alongside a similarly themed push by Federal Group, the privately owned Sydney hotel company that holds the exclusive right to licence the state’s pokies. Liberal party advertising – black-backgrounded when a voice warns of the risks of a Labor-Greens minority government, stately navy blue for premier Will Hodgman in positive mode – has been no less ubiquitous.

Love Your Local chairman Michael Best, who owns nine gaming venues as head of the Goodstone Group, is not sure if it is the largest campaign in the state’s history, but agrees it is hard to miss. He says his campaign is driven “by anger [and] extreme disappointment” with Labor.

Of the billboard, he says: “It is straight to the point, but we’ve been attacked – our business, our staff, our future. We wanted to put our position out there, and that’s what it is.”

Counter-advertising backing Labor’s policy gamble was much slower to appear. White announced the pokies phase out in December; an anti-pokies campaign by advocacy group Bad Bets Australia – funded by the Museum of Old and New Art creator David Walsh, and portraying poker machines as parasites, scuttling around the suburbs – began only midway through the campaign. Labor, running short on money, has held back much of its advertising until the final weeks.

None of the major players will say how much they are spending on the campaign, and under existing donation disclosure laws they will not have to until next year. Labor sources estimate the Liberal party and hospitality industry would have collectively spent $5m on advertising, and say the TV ad ratio is running 10:1 in the Liberals’ favour.

The impact of that is difficult to measure. There has been no public polling of voting intention since last year, but insiders from across the political sphere agree that the government has run a more effective campaign, with a larger and more targeted swag of policies. Last December, the major parties were level pegging. Many now tentatively put the Liberals to be ahead, a point the government has tried to reinforce through the selective release of internal polling.

Labor’s break with Federal was historic by any measure. According to social historian James Boyce’s book Losing Streak, in the early 1970s the ALP ensured Federal would hold a casino monopoly in the state. 30 years later, it agreed to the extension of its pokies’ monopoly in all venues. That deal was overseen by Paul Lennon, who later became premier. He is now employed by Federal Group as a lobbyist.

Under the ALP’s new stance, Federal would face two blows. From 2023, it would lose its licence rights for pokies in venues outside casinos, and be forced to remove the machines from its own pubs.

The Liberal party is also proposing a change – handing the licences directly to the pubs and clubs. While that may seem to just be taking on Federal’s long-held monopoly in another way, Boyce says it is transparently driven to please the company.

He says the Hodgman government had planned to hold a tender for the pokies licence, but changed its position after receiving a submission from Federal Group and the Tasmanian Hospitality Association calling for an arrangement almost identical to the one it now proposes.

Under new tax rates associated with the plan, the pubs and clubs would see their take increase from about a third to nearly half of poker machine revenue. Federal Group would lose its monopoly, but could benefit at its 12 pokies’ venues. It is also pushing for the change to coincide with a lower tax rate on its casinos. The government is yet to respond.

Anti-pokies campaigners say by agreeing to the industry’s proposal, the government is not only continuing a highly addictive and socially damaging industry, but short-changing taxpayers. In part by using numbers put forward by the Federal Group, they estimate a tender process for the pokies licences could yield the state $250m.

Based on the Victorian experience, Monash University academic and social activist Charles Livingstone calculated it may be as much as $380m.

A government spokesman says the analysis is “completely wrong” because it did not factor in an expected $16m a year increase in taxes, levies and licence fees, adding up to $320m over two decades. By comparison, the Labor plan would forego tax and cost $55m for a promised transition package.

Livingstone says it is mystifying the state government appeared to not want the full value for pokies licences in the state.

“They are granting a gift that is costing the Tasmanian economy hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Source
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