Down Murray Street Hobart, the cat still plays the fiddle, the cow still jumps over the moon. Every hour they do a little jig, the cat sawing away at a cello, the dish running away with the spoon. Have I been at Tasmania’s legal poppy crop? No, it’s the Cat and Fiddle arcade mural clock, ruling over Hobart since 1962. It was once the portal to a cool Scandi-design arcade. That has now been encased in a boring urban mall, but the cat and the moon are still locked in an eternal embrace. Look at their faces! They are deeply in love. I first saw this thing when I was eight years old. I’m eight years old again every time I see it. Forget MONA: the cat and fiddle rule the city in majesty and peace.

Beneath their stately calm, the whole state is going crazy.

Five days until Tasmania goes to the polls, and for many it cannot come too soon. For weeks, the public has been hit with a barrage of political advertising, the likes of which have never been seen before. The banners hang from the old Victorian pile pubs, in a city never really modernised — “Labor and the Greens think you’re idiots” — the newspapers are filled with double-page spreads urging apple islanders to “love your local”, the TV ad breaks are wall-to-wall with nine-dollar graphics, radio fizzes with 30-second warnings. “I’ll have to go to the mainland for a hospitality career if Labor gets in,” some kid whines. Yeah, and also finish year seven.

And it is almost all of it a sea of blue; Liberal, or Lib-friendly advertising hammering the populace on two issues: the dangers of minority government, and the disastrous implications of the Labor and Green intent to remove pokies machines from Tasmania’s pubs. All of them — every machine, close to 3500 — are owned by one company, Federal Group, which also owns Wrest Point, some high-end wilderness accommodation, and the Henry Jones Hotel in the old jam factory on the wharves, one of the half-dozen art hotels in this strange southern hipster outpost.

The level of spending, and the imbalance of it is ridiculous, a disgrace, but also an embarrassment. Every second page in the fanatically pro-Liberal MercuryThe Mockery – is an ad by one of the pokies’ front groups. The Federal Group communications director had a piece across two-thirds of the paper’s op-ed double-page last week. Some ads are just a blue background, with “Vote Liberal” across them. The Mockery’s election section strapline is a blue band. Apple Isle? It’s a damn banana republic. Labor’s spend is about a 10th, the Greens a 20th, on a rough estimate.

Yet for all that, Will Hodgman’s Liberal government, with a majority of 15 in the 25-seat parliament, elected on the Hare-Clark-Robson system, are facing a hung parliament, or a one-seat majority. Their success has been their failure. Getting deep into the pocket of the pokies stirred a social movement in this most backward, yet most advanced of polities, the most contradictory polity in the Western world.

“I came back to Glenorchy after years away and I was cheffing in pubs — I was, I am, an old hippie — and I watched them all die.” In a hipster coffee joint opposite Hobart’s cool bookshop, Fuller’s (“This Friday! Jacquie Lambie signing!”) anti-pokies campaigner Pat Caplice is trying to explain the last 20 years of Tasmanian gaming to me. With the bushy-eyebrows and monk’s tonsure of the once-shaggy-haired, in a T-shirt saying “Spaced Out”, he should be an unlikely expert on gaming policy. But he’s not. Because in Tasmania, it’s nuts.

“The clubs and hotels pushed for pokies back in the ’80s. Federal opposed it totally, used all the arguments about dependency they now deny. Then, when it was being debated in 1993, there was a huge backflip, within days, and Federal itself was gifted a monopoly licence.”

Federal Group has dominated the state for decades, since it turned a coastal hotel at Wrest Point into Australia’s first legal casino in 1972. In the 1990s, hotel groups started banging the drum for local pokies, something Federal Group opposed vociferously. The deal has made the Farrell family, which owns Federal Group outright, rich to the tune of about half a billion dollars. In 1998, Labor, led by a “Pledge”-style pact of old BLF Maoist Jim Bacon and Grouper Paul Lennon, bent over backwards to accommodate Federal’s wishes, as the price of power. Neither had much reluctance about doing so. Post-politics, Lennon is a lobbyist for Federal Group. Bacon, who died in 2003, loved big dinners down at Wrest Point with the bosses; his second wife Honey was the casino’s star croupier when it opened in ’72, featured beaming in ads and promos.

Bacon extended the time-limited deal after winning re-election in 2002 . It came up again in the last two years, and was set to be renewed. But MONA owner David Walsh had put in a proposal for a small high-roller casino to support MONA. The Hodgman government offered to back it, in exchange for his support for Federal Group’s continued pokies monopoly. Walsh, who hates pokies, published the proposed deal on his blog, and the island was in uproar. The Hodgman government made a new proposal, giving hotel groups the right to buy their own machines, with licences to be given out on a place-by-place basis.

Big defeat for Federal, right?

Hahaha, this is Tasmania, where beneath the knowing moon, the cat fiddles.

Consultants assessed the value of the to-be-created licences for each of the 180-odd pokies hotels at around $1.5 million each. They then proposed to gift the licences to the venues for no cost. The pro-pokies push, Federal and the hotels groups, dispute this valuation, arguing that a licence charge would put small hotels – a relative handful – in an impossible position.

And who owns 12 of the 20 largest pokies venues by turnover?

Federal! Which thus stands to gain around $25 million-plus in the assessed values of the free licences – and to then buy up the other hotel groups, if it wants. The deal potentially rolls over automatically to 2043. The zero-cost licence is arguably a $250 million gift to the industry. A state that has nothing to sell but its state powers — the capacity to license — has given it away to the industry for free. Twice!

Labor finally turned to an anti-pokies line in 2017 — led by Scott Bacon, shadow treasurer and son of Jim. And Caplice and others’ bare-bones social media and street campaign may surprise the state.

“Whatever happens,” Caplice says, pausing to take in the cold sun, in a street of ancient houses, the sign “Pandora” hanging above him, “This will tell us something about what can be done with a no-money campaign.” Spoken like a true activist. And card-counter.

And of course this matters a lot more than as just a curio for mainlanders. Because within the Australian federation, an entire jurisdiction has been debauched, decade on decade, a real worst-case scenario for the corruption of state power elsewhere, and probably a blueprint for it.

The cat and the moon fiddle-on above it all. But they are not so innocent either. The name is from an old brothel-pub that stood in a laneway there until the 1900s. Locked in a loving gaze! The cat and the moon, eyeing each other off. As has been Tasmanian big party politics for a quarter century. On Saturday the state will decide if it continues for a quarter century more.

Peter Fray

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