The Labor Club board has passed a resolution opposing the Canberra casino's bid for pokies and saying it won't sell to the casino, in a move that complicates the issue for Chief Minister Andrew Barr.
The casino's new owners, Aquis, want 500 poker machines and have put a major redevelopment bid to the government to transform its city location and the convention centre. But the bid has outraged clubs, which currently have exclusive rights to poker machines.
Now Richard Farmer, a lobbying heavyweight, has entered the fray, working as a lobbyist for the Raiders group to fight the casino bid. Mr Farmer has registered on the ACT and the federal registers of lobbyists and threatens to make the casino request for poker machines a federal issue if necessary.
Mr Farmer is not the only significant political player from a previous era to emerge over this issue. The Labor Club resolution last week is believed to have been moved by Wayne Berry, a leader in the party's left faction when he was in politics and now a member of the club board.
The resolution sends a message to Mr Barr about opposition within his own party, including in the left. It also attempts to put paid to the idea of the Labor Club selling poker machines to the casino to cut back its involvement in the gambling industry. Mr Berry refused to confirm or comment on Monday and the Labor Club, which owns 503 machines, did not return calls.
The casino wants to buy about 670 poker machines from the city's clubs (170 would be forfeited under the trading scheme rules), with industry figures suggesting they could cost more than $50 million all up – a boon for the sellers. No one will divulge what price machines have fetched to date.
Raiders chief Simon Hawkins, who recently said the Raiders would halt redevelopment plans if the casino won poker machines, confirmed the engagement of Mr Farmer, saying he was well qualified, highly experienced and had inside knowledge from his previous work on poker machines at the casino.
Mr Farmer will use the 2016 election to fight the casino bid, threatening Labor even with the possibility of anti-pokies candidates. It would be a grave mistake to assume that independents could not get elected in five-member electorates, Mr Farmer, who worked on the campaigns of former independents Paul Osborne and Dave Rugendyke, said.
"After they have been in government a few years, Labor governments, they just seem to get an amazing confidence that they can do whatever they want to do – a victim of that invincibility ... that because this is such a strong Labor town they will never be beaten. I guess I just have to tell them they could be wrong," he said.
Nick Xenophon's success federally was the evidence that poker machines could ignite voters, he said, insisting that the "whatever people think about the proceeds of poker machines, they would rather see them in community hands than in private hands".
Mr Farmer, who fought a previous bid by the casino to get poker machines, rejected the compromise position mooted within the clubs industry that clubs themselves could own and operate poker machines on the casino site.
"The casino was built on the clear promise and understanding that it would have no poker machines. Nothing has changed. It was a promise that was made by a Labor government initially and it's a promise that should be kept by a Labor government," he said.
Despite his deep involvement in local and federal politics over many years historically, Mr Farmer will be starting from starting from scratch into building a relationship with Mr Barr.
"I don't know the man to be honest," he said of Mr Barr. "I have not been in this Canberra caper since, gee, it's 20-odd years."
Asked about the Labor Club resolution, Mr Barr said, "Business decisions made by the board of a club are a matter for that club."
Clubs ACT chief executive Gwyn Rees said the group had been pleased at the Labor Club decision.
"The community club model is something that should be celebrated in Canberra. People came together to make clubs what they are, whether it be sport, cultural or political," he said. "... It was really important for the club to restate its support for the community club model."