Tories, Pokies and Furphies: Tasmania’s state elections in review

Etu National

Now, more than ever, is no time to be politically naïve. Union members need to be informed about what sneaky politicians are really up to.

Make no mistake, unions are square in the sights of those who are happy for a rich and powerful minority to exploit the rest. Why? Because there’s reward-a-plenty for grovelling little crawlers ready to use parliamentary position to open the door to the wealthy The 2018 Tasmanian state elections are a case in point, and a team of ETU members and other unionists were on the ground to witness one of the grubbiest political campaigns ever as it unfolded in the lead-up to the polls.

On the election trail – Part I. By Phill Ball.

Recently, Jorge Amaya, Seamus McConn and I lent a hand to our comrades on the Apple Isle to campaign against a state government corrupted by ulterior agendas, and beholden to private corporate interests.

The Hodgeman Liberal Government had just come to the end of their first four-year term, and the results were astonishingly ugly: public health and education funding slashed; a massive housing crisis resulting in, amongst other short-term measures, the erection of shanties in public spaces; secret negotiations with narrow interest groups to change enshrined law; and a government quite happy to claim credit for big construction projects that were sealed under the previous administration.

Many turned out to support Janet Lambert who was running in the seat of Lyons. Source: Todd Lambert

But the stand-out for me was the blatant way in which the hotel lobby eagerly lined up behind the Liberal Party’s win-at-any-price campaign of deception (or was it the other way around?) regarding the opposition’s proposal to phase out poker machines in local pubs and clubs.

Pokey Addictions

Now I know many of us like a ‘flutter’, and some – if they’re honest – will admit to problem gambling. I’ve heard numerous tales of punters betting away family homes and businesses, and it’s no accident that poker machines are to the fore.

How so? Well, academics such as Anton Pavlov and B F Skinner realised that certain stimuli cause secretions in the brain that can lead to habitual behaviour, and poker machine designers have tapped into these findings to ensure that their insidious contraptions draw victims back time and again.

Enter the Farrell Family

In the late 1960s, the Federal Group, owned by the Farrells, built the country’s first legal gambling den: Wrest Point Casino in Hobart. Initially, they claimed it would be a tourist boon for Tasmania, providing first class entertainment and accommodation, with gambling as a sideline attraction.

Queensland ETU member Jorge Amaya braced the cool climate of the Apple Isle to campaign for Lambert. Source: Todd Lambert

Nevertheless, it was soon obvious that gambling (predominantly at poker machines) was the focus, and rather than wealth flowing in from tourists spending lavishly, there was a haemorrhage of cash out of the state due to locals losing money, hand over fist.

Since then, FG has monopolised Tasmanian poker machine licenses, and despite their previous position that pokies would present harmful social and economic affects if introduced to suburban venues (or more pertinently, they would have constituted a direct threat to the company’s casino income), they quickly implemented an extensive programme of installations at local pubs and clubs once they were granted the licences.

It’s no accident that the majority of these are in working class and disadvantaged neighbourhoods rather than the more affluent areas like Salamanca, where nary a poker machine can be found in any venue.

Residents of poorer neighbourhoods generally live more mundane livesand have inherently less reliable or lucrative income prospects. Gambling is thus a distraction from reality, and an imagined path to riches. The real winners, the Farrells, have wallowed in the wealth pouring out of Tassie as a result of gambling misery, now to the tune of $110 million per year.

Addressing the Issues

There’s been no shortage of political debate on what to do about gambling misery and the accompanying huge wealth outflow.

The Labor Party and the Greens proposed phasing out poker machines from non-casino venues, with the ALP promising a compensation package to enable affected businesses to wean off gambling income, and to make the transition back to a pokey-less economy.

It’s not an unreasonable proposition. Many amongst us can recall a time when most of the country was poker machine-free. What did it mean? Well, as it turns out, local pubs and community clubs proliferated and thrived (more readily than they do today, in fact), albeit as far more modest establishments than the flashy edifices they’ve so often become.

Seamus McConn and Lambert out on the hustings near Hobart. Source: Todd Lambert

The emphasis, in those heady days, was on sport, entertainment and dining. This equated to plenty of jobs, plenty of vibrant community interaction, and plenty of inexpensive distraction for the ordinary folk. I for one, can recall a pulsing music scene at such venues, and being able to go and see great local and national touring bands alike on any given night. At some of the local footy clubs (Brisbane’s Easts Leagues, for example) one could get their ya-yas out to the likes of Divinyls, Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel or INXS, and for a very reasonable door charge. And now what have we got? Flashing lights, jingling bells, and the odd payout. Talk about dull!

The Response

True to their greedy tendencies, for Tasmania’s absentee gambling licensees it was all about the money. The Federal Group came out swinging with a massive war chest to pay for TV, radio and internet advertising, and huge banners that were plastered all over Tasmanian pubs and clubs with slogans such as “Save Our Jobs. Vote Liberal”.

Even staff who were reluctant to do so were cajoled into wearing T-shirts advertising the FG’s opposition to poker machine restrictions. Of course, the Liberal toadies were all on board, lapping up this windfall boost to their election chances. Sadly, many ordinary folks fell for the lie, telling us during our door-to-door forays that they intended voting Liberal due only to their fear of losing jobs.

The Reality

There were never going to be job losses. Paradoxically, it’s been the Liberals who’ve led the charge in attacking hospitality jobs across the country.

At the federal level, they’ve reduced penalty rates and increased casualisation for what is already the lowest-paid sector, and in Tasmania, if anything, they’ve reduced the number of hospitality jobs by their very support of the gambling industry.

I’d challenge anybody to look me in the face and explain how poker machines have improved employment levels. Quite the opposite!

Poker machines are low maintenance and have largely replaced labour intensive operations like entertainment (performers and their management, roadies, cashiers, security and bar staff – remember?), and on-premises dining (cooks, waiters, kitchen hands and cleaners).

The Result

The fact that the Liberal Party had to use every last filthy cent to get the result they did is testament to the work of rank-and-file people.

There was a swing against them which translated to their losing in twelve of the twenty-five parliamentary seats – not nearly as convincing a win as they would have us believe, and this despite the FG’s huge cash splash.

(Although difficult to ascertain, the Liberal Party’s election spending has been estimated to have been at least ten times the usual amount judging by their massively increased presence in the Murdoch Press, and without reference to electronic media advertising.)

The moral? Be aware! Don’t trust everything you read in the Murdoch-controlled papers (as people in the US have asked for many years: “Is that the truth or is your News Limited?”).

Be wary of political motives and let your votes be informed. If possible, get involved politically, and above all, be active unionists. We can make a difference.

In the end, the only thing we ordinary folk have in our favour are our numbers, for united we stand, divided we fall.

Postscript

EBA negotiations at Federal Group that conveniently stalled while the election was in progress have now resumed. Those same employees who were coerced into supporting the company’s bogus “Save Our Jobs” campaign have been offered a 1.8% per year wage increase (effectively a wage decrease as the ‘rise’ doesn’t even keep step with inflation), and that’s on top of the wage cut they’ve already suffered under the Turnbull Government’s attack on hospitality workers’ penalty rates.

Here’s hoping Federal Group’s employees strike back against such an offensive proposal, and demand their fair share of the loot. Since being used by their employer to promote the Liberal Party, they deserve ship-loads more than 1.8%.

This is personal reflection on the 2018 Tasmanian state election by Phill Ball is a member of the Electrical Trades Union Queensland branch. The views expressed in the piece do not represent the views of the ETU.


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