Anthony Ball is the CEO of Clubs NSW and Clubs Australia, and the driving force behind the pro-pokies campaign. Calm, conservatively dressed and quietly spoken, he’s really only powerful on this one issue, but he’s striking fear into the hearts of NSW Labor MPs, and he’s planning more pressure in November, when the draft bill is likely to appear.

“We reckon the whips will be cracking by then,” he says, “so that’s when the clubs will be going to their MPs to say, ‘You need to decide’.”

If mandatory pre-commitment laws are introduced, Ball claims, some of Sydney’s clubs will go bust, thousands of jobs will be lost, sports teams will perish, and we’ll all need a licence to punt. But if Ball has the balls, we’ll never need to find out whether that’s all, well … balls.

“I’m fortunate to be in an industry which probably is powerful,” he tells The Power Index. “Our ability to talk to people in every part of NSW every day is quite unique, and we can mobilise huge numbers of people.”

Which is exactly what they’re planning to do. And with 6 million members, 1500 clubs and annual revenue of about $6 billion — of which 60% comes from pokies — the clubs are hard to ignore.

“Every MP has a club in his constituency,” Ball continues, “who is probably the patron and certainly a member, and whose sons play footy, so we don’t need to explain what we’re about.”

Former NSW premier Morris Iemma agrees. “Clubs NSW is one of the most important lobby groups out there,” he says. “They can shift votes and can certainly drum up a crowd that will put enough heat on the arse of politicians.”

And this is especially true of Labor politicians, since clubs and Labor go hand in hand, and even more true of MPs with marginal seats in Western Sydney, the clubs’ metropolitan heartland.

Yet, despite putting on the frighteners by pasting up big posters of those MPs in club foyers across Sydney and NSW, Ball isn’t counting on an easy victory: “No one has yet said they’re going to cross the floor, and I’d be staggered if they did, because they’re first and foremost Labor MPs.”

However, he’s got a better chance of twisting the arms of the three independents, whose support is vital to getting the mandatory pre-commitment laws through the House of Representatives, and killing the bill that way. Clubs Australia (which Ball also runs) has been doing letterbox drops to voters in New England (Tony Windsor), Lyne (Rob Oakeshott) and Kennedy (Bob Katter), and hitting these electorates with TV ads designed by Labor’s favourite ad man, John Singleton, who owns a few pokies machines himself.

The clubs’ first campaign, branding the new measures “Un-Australian” and claiming gamblers will need “a licence to punt”, is aimed squarely at club members. The second, tagged, “Won’t work, will hurt”, is for everyone. But it kicked off with a blast to footy fans from Channel Nine commentators Phil Gould and Ray Warren on September 23.

So far, the entire campaign has only cost $2 million, including posters, coasters and letterbox drops, which is a fraction of the $20 million that has been talked about. But the clubs have got real bang for their buck. The first ads showed only in regional NSW and far-north Queensland, yet they grabbed air time on just about every TV news bulletin in the country. And the second batch has already got a free ride from the NRL and Channel Nine, with news stories following up.

*Read the full profile at The Power Index

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey