Is Australia’s status as the most gambling-addicted nation on earth about to reach a tipping point?

Senator Nick Xenophon and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie this afternoon are in Hobart together working through their tactics ahead of next week’s serious negotiations over the formation of a minority government.

Wilkie yesterday went public stating that pokies were his “flashpoint” issue and close observers believe he is prepared to “go to the wire” to secure meaningful reform.

Wilkie’s passion and sincerity on the pokies should not be understated. During the recent Tasmanian election, he ran as independent in Denison on a no-pokies platform and did surprisingly well as follows:

  • ALP: 36.3%
  • Liberal: 29.79%
  • Greens: 24.89%
  • Andrew Wilkie: 8.44% (5382 first preference votes)

During that campaign, Wilkie had a truck parked at the Hobart waterfront with an electronic scoreboard tracking Tasmanian pokies losses real time.

Wilkie then broadened his platform for the federal election and finished up with the following primary vote result from the same pool of electors:

  • ALP: 36.19%
  • Liberal: 22.41%
  • Andrew  Wilkie: 21.4% (13,358 votes)
  • Greens: 18.69%

Interestingly, the former spy benefited from the donkey vote in the federal election but the 253% increase in his primary vote came almost entirely from Green and Liberal voters in equal measure.

The Tasmanian Greens are currently pressuring their Labor Coalition partners in Tasmania to push ahead with the $1 maximum bet reform and the Tasmanian Liberals were the first major party to take such a policy to the election.

While the position of the three country independents on the pokies is unclear, the Greens want tough action and Adam Bandt knows the damage pokies have caused to the live music scene in his seat of Melbourne.

While Bandt might be over-reaching, putting conditions for his support of a Gillard government around a carbon tax or gay marriage, he could very easily team with former Greens candidate Wilkie to secure pokies reform as the one policy condition of their joint support.

While this list shows that Labor is regarded very much as the pokies party when it comes to political donations, Gillard herself hasn’t ever expressed strong public concern about the huge damage they cause to voters in her working-class electorate of Lalor,  centred around Werribee.

Indeed, as The Age reported during the campaign, the Woolworths-operated Werribee Plaza Tavern (see this video)  is Victoria’s biggest pokies revenue generator outside of Crown Casino.

Woolworths yesterday reported a record $2 billion net profit for 2009-10 but its giant 12,000-strong pokies division saw gross profits drop by 19% to $176.7 million on stable revenue of  $1.1 billion.

The company’s results presentation pack included the following pokies commentary:

“Results were impacted by cycling the Government stimulus package and increased regulatory environment in particular reduced trading hours in Queensland and changes to maximum bet and restrictions on ATMs in Victoria. 2012 changes to the Victorian gaming licencing will be beneficial.”

Does Labor really need to protect Woolworths from exploiting Australia’s estimated 100,000 problem gamblers when it is today capitalised at $34 billion after reporting 11 straight record profits?

Labor’s capture by the pokies lobby is partly explained by the huge revenue it generates for cash-strapped state governments but its disregard for the damage caused to its working-class supporters is hard to fathom.

This list tracking the 66 Victorian pokies venues where punters lost more than $10 million in 2009-10 shows that 57 of them are in Labor-held seats.

If Julia Gillard wants to form government, she may need to start understanding the scale of the problem. Will she be prepared to make a substantial policy shift and commit to implementing the full suite of Productivity Commission recommendations relating to poker machines?

This would involve reducing the maximum bet to $1 per play. It is currently $10 in NSW and $5 in Victoria. The PC also recommended mandatory pre-commitment and Senator Xenophon is driving hard for the maximum loss per hour to be set at $120, something that was in the draft PC report but not the final version.

Stephen Mayne ran unsuccessfully on this anti-pokies platform for the Victorian Senate but was delighted to help defeat Liberal Senator Julian McGauran whose family operates a pokies venue just down the road from Julia Gillard’s Melbourne home.