ADELAIDE, Nov 11 (Reuters) Australia is a nation of gamblers who are now backing an anti-gambling candidate for national parliament, with a strong chance he could end up deciding if government laws pass in the upper house Senate.
Nick Xenophon has spent a decade trying to help problem gamblers and curb the spread of gaming or slot machines, known as ''pokies'' in Australia, and is now running as an independent Senate candidate in the November 24 general election.
Analysts believe Xenophon has enough support to win a seat, enabling him to take his ''No Pokies'' campaign to the national stage, where he could have the deciding vote on crucial legislation.
''I see pokies as a litmus test of good government,'' Xenophon told Reuters in an interview at his makeshift campaign headquarters in a cavernous old warehouse in Adelaide.
''If the government is getting it wrong on poker machines, when you consider what it does to people with the social impacts, what else are they getting wrong?'' Australian voters have been traditionally wary of independents, usually throwing their support behind major parties, or minor Senate parties such as the Greens.
But a poll by Adelaide University on Friday found Xenophon, 48, had an unprecedented 24 per cent support with two weeks to the election, enough to guarantee him a Senate seat.
Under the proportional voting system for the Senate, a candidate needs about 14.5 per cent of the vote in their home state to get elected.
GAMBLING PROBLEMS Polls show conservative Prime Minister John Howard to be well behind his Labor rival Kevin Rudd, with the government set to lose its one-seat majority in the Senate, leaving the Greens and Xenophon with the crucial swing votes on contentious laws.
Xenophon has spent a decade in the South Australian state legislature where he has built a cult following as a ''No Pokies'' politician. He dismisses the polls and believes he still has only an outside chance to win a Senate seat.
If he does win Xenophon will be the first independent from South Australia in 106 years, and he has made it clear he will push his campaign to help problem gamblers.
Australia, a nation of 21 million people, has one of the world's highest levels of gambling. Official data show Australians gamble away about A.5 billion a year.
Poker machines in hotels, clubs and taverns account for 8.7 billion American dollars a year, or 56 per cent of total gambling revenue.
A major government report in 1999 found Australia had 21 per cent of the world's poker machines, second only to the United States, generating about 4 billion American dollar a year in state taxes.
The Salvation Army estimates that up to 300,000 Australians are addicted to gambling, leading to severe social problems such as depression, poverty and family breakdown.
''We know what it does to people,'' Xenophon said, adding that 42 per cent of poker machine revenue was from problem gamblers. ''But the states are hopelessly addicted to gambling taxes.'' Xenophon said that if he was elected, his first action would be to push to have bank cash machines removed from gambling venues.
He would also push to fix the ailing Murray River, under stress from six years of severe drought, which provides water to irrigators in the nation's food bowl and about 60 percent of the drinking water to Adelaide, a city of more than 1 million people.
REUTERS GL ND0950