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When it comes to election campaigns, is the gambling lobby all bark and no bite?

Poker machines are wildly unpopular in the electorate – so why fight an election on them? AAP/Paul Jeffers

When it comes to election campaigns, is the gambling lobby all bark and no bite?

Poker machines are wildly unpopular in the electorate – so why fight an election on them? AAP/Paul Jeffers

The gambling lobby’s influence in overriding popular opinion and the public interest in Australia is well-known. But is its electoral power exaggerated? A look at this year’s ACT election suggests that perhaps the gambling industry is less influential than it appears to be.

Generating fear

One crucial weapon in Big Gambling’s lobbying arsenal is its threat to campaign against MPs at elections.

Former politicians describe the fear generated by threats of being targeted at elections: that the gambling industry will bring such financial resources to bear in an election campaign that proponents of gambling reform will be defeated at the ballot box.

The 2011 campaign against federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s poker-machine reform agenda provides evidence of this electoral fear. Aided and abetted by a conflicted media, the gambling lobby boasted of a A$40 million war-chest that would “eviscerate the government’s ranks of ministers and parliamentary secretaries at the next election if no compromise was reached” on Wilkie’s reforms.

A marginal seats campaign was promised, in which vulnerable government MPs would be targeted with vast electoral resources to blast those who did not acquiesce to Big Gambling’s wishes out of office.

History shows this campaign was successful in spooking the Gillard government. It reneged on its promised reforms well before the 2013 election. This gave the gambling industry an easy victory without an election being fought on the issue.

We don’t know if the gambling industry’s promised electoral strategy would have been successful because it has never been tested. Its great success has been in the fear it generates among politicians well before any election is called.

However, there are good reasons to think the industry’s popular support is lacking. For one, poker machines are wildly unpopular in the electorate. In 2014, 86% of ACT residents stated a belief that pokies do more harm than good, and a majority would like to see the number of machines reduced.

Similarly, a national study conducted during the gambling reform debate in 2011 found 74% in favour of mandatory pre-commitment.

What happened in the ACT?

With such little popular support for Big Gambling among voters, the wisdom of fighting an election campaign over pokies is questionable.

The 2016 ACT election finally put this question to the test. The issue was the Labor government’s decision to allow the Canberra Casino to purchase 200 pokie licenses from ACT clubs, allowing the machines in the casino for the first time.

Lobby group ClubsACT promised to campaign hard on the casino issue, arguing it was a threat to the clubs sector’s viability in Canberra. But ACT Labor did not back down prior to the election, and decided to face a concerted electoral campaign by the gambling industry.

ClubsACT, which is reliant on pokies for the majority of its income, launched a campaign against Labor and the Greens. It reportedly spent $185,000 funding the creation of a new political party, Canberra Community Voters (CCV), headed by lobbyist Richard Farmer. Most of this money was reportedly spent on TV advertising.

A ‘Your Canberra Clubs’ ad.

CCV’s signature issue was the future of clubs in the ACT. While it always seemed unlikely that it would gain seats in the Legislative Assembly, the political strategy appears to be one of diverting primary votes away from Labor and the Greens, and directing preferences to the Liberals.

A second front of attack was launched directly through the clubs themselves. During the months leading up to the election, banners and beer coasters appeared in Canberra’s community clubs bearing the slogan:

Imagine Canberra without community clubs.

And, on election day, text messages were sent to club members, imploring them to “save your community club” by voting Liberal.

A text message sent to a voter on the morning of the ACT election. Francis Markham

In all, ClubsACT reportedly spent $240,000 on its electoral efforts.

But this much-feared campaign amounted to very little. CCV received just 1,703 first-preference votes, or 0.7% of validly cast votes, at a cost of $109 per vote. Clubs in the ACT collectively have more employees than CCV received votes.

If the clubs’ claim of 200,000 members across the ACT is taken at face value, then less than 1% of members voted according to their wishes. Ultimately, the sitting Labor government was returned for a fifth term. The Liberals, the supposed beneficiary of the clubs’ campaign, received a swing against them of 2.2%.

While it is impossible to know exactly what role the gambling industry’s campaign played in this election, the clubs’ monopoly over pokies clearly wasn’t a decisive issue. Few voters were swayed to change their vote by the clubs’ arguments or CCV’s advertising blitz. In the final analysis, the clubs’ willingness to spend almost a quarter-of-a-million dollars on campaigning came to little.

This should embolden governments around Australia that have a mind to deal with the social fallout caused by poker machines. Poker machine reform remains very popular in Australia. What we now know is that the gambling industry’s much-vaunted electoral power is more bark than bite.