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Fight looms with hotels industry as Xenophon goes back to No Pokies roots

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Potential political kingmaker and longtime anti-gambling crusader Nick Xenophon insists poker machine policy will play a decisive role in the state election campaign – despite the hotels lobby insisting it’s a third-order issue.

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In comes as the State Government concedes more should be done to reduce the number of pokies in the state.

Xenophon – whose SA Best party is well-placed to win a swag of lower house seats that could see it hold the balance of power – says he will unveil a major anti-pokies policy in the new year that he expects will see him explicitly targeted by the Australian Hotels Association.

“The AHA will have a bigger role in this campaign than any other, because they’re worried about their vested interests,” he told InDaily.

“They’re worried that the gravy train that they’ve been on – largely on the backs of people addicted to poker machines – will be derailed.”

The brewing stoush between the one-time No Pokies independent and the AHA comes on the back of last week’s pledge by the Tasmanian Labor Opposition to ban pokies from pubs and clubs in that state, leaving them only in casinos.

If carried out, the move would make Tasmania one of only two states – along with Western Australia – without gaming machines in its pubs and clubs.

AHA SA boss Ian Horne insists any comparison between SA and Tasmania is like comparing “apples with oranges”, because all the Apple Isle’s machines belong to the Federal Group – which is wholly owned by the Sydney-based Farrell family – under a monopoly licence, and “they move machines around as they see fit”.

“What the Labor Opposition in Tasmania is suggesting is that they’re simply going to move machines from community clubs and put them back into casinos,” he said.

Nonetheless, the move does have echoes of a 2014 push by then-senator Xenophon to pursue a plebiscite on whether pokie bets should be limited to a maximum of $1, and machines restricted to the Adelaide Casino.

While not revealing any detail of his planned policy, Xenophon told InDaily: “SA Best will announce a poker machine policy very soon [and] I expect the AHA will be even more worried.”

The AHA has already begun an advertising campaign urging South Australians to back politicians who support local pubs and clubs, while The Advertiser’s Tory Shepherd reported last week that Xenophon had alleged a phone survey conducted in the seat of Hartley – which he is contesting – was akin to “push-polling”.

Horne told InDaily “we do polling as any responsible interest group does”, insisting that “gaming simply doesn’t come up as an issue that’s top of mind on [voters’] list of concerns”.

“Cost of living is a major concern, jobs and job security, power costs, the cost of health… but gaming is simply not high on the agenda,” he said.

Horne said his association was “not targeting any particular party or individuals at this stage”, but added: “We’re of the opinion that hung parliaments don’t have a really good track history in Australia.”

He conceded the AHA has “an absolute vested interest” but “at this stage we’re focussing on our very positive reinforcement of the value of the hotel industry”.

“We have not developed a Plan B at this stage because a day is a long time in politics,” he said.

“We will support politicians and political parties who value the contribution of the hotel and pub industry, as opposed to putting in place policies that are designed to cripple many operators – or worse – in an economic sense.

“We are sending out our message now and the association has an enormous responsibility on behalf of its members… to protect their interests.”

If Xenophon’s party holds the balance of power, it’s likely pokies policy will be a key consideration governing his decision.

However, asked in October by ABC Radio Adelaide presenter David Bevan whether he would demand the removal of poker machines if he held the balance of power, Xenophon was equivocal, saying “what I want is to reduce the damage caused by poker machines”.

“I’d be very happy for there not to be any poker machines in the state, but I’m also pragmatic and realistic…. if we reduce the harm caused by poker machines that will go a long way to dealing with my concerns,” he said at the time.

But he did not respond today when asked whether his policy would involve a major reduction of poker machines.

“Poker machines will be a key issue,” he told InDaily.

“We want there to be a very clear point of demarcation between us and the major parties.”

He did note the policy would involve “costing issues” but argued that whatever revenue the State Government lost in pokies would be compensated in a corresponding pick-up in other areas of the economy, including retail.

Significantly, the Weatherill Government today signalled it was prepared to tackle poker machines as an election issue – which would provide a significant lure in any deal offered to Xenophon.

Consumer and Business Services Minister John Rau told InDaily in a statement that while “the number of poker machines in SA has steadily reduced since 2002… that decrease is not good enough”.

“The Government attempted to make changes in 2013 that would have produced a significant reduction in machines… unfortunately, most of those critical changes were blocked by the Legislative Council,” he said.

Xenophon disputed Horne’s assertion that gambling was not a top-shelf issue to voters.

“Of course Ian Horne would say that, but over the years we’ve seen hundreds of thousands of South Australians hit hard by poker machines,” he said.

“Most South Australians would know of someone or know someone directly who’s been hurt by poker machines… most people understand how damaging this is.”

He said he expected to announce his policy early in the new year and “we want there to be a clear point of difference between us and the major parties [who have been] in concert with the pokie barons for too long”.

“Once the SA Best policy is announced I expect there will be many Liberal and Labor candidates flush with funds from the industry,” he said.

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