You can always rely on Canberra to provide an accurate assessment of the health of the Australian economy.
No, not the Treasurer in his Ministerial office in Parliament House. No, not the Department of Treasury just down the Hill in Barton.
A good measure of our economic temperature can be found at a small outfit at the opposite end of Canberra in the suburb of Mitchell - Capital Pinball. Capital's showroom is full of pinball machines from early electro-mechanical models to some of the more modern creations from companies like Stern.
As a niche luxury item, the trade in pinball machines can provide an excellent snapshot of whether the Australian economy is heading for 'TILT' or whether it's on its way to recording a 'high score'.
There has been a resurgence in the pinball market over the last decade as more people have sought to incorporate a man-cave or recreation room in the family home. Where pool tables and foosball were once the must-have items for such endeavours, pinball machines have carved out a significant chunk of the market, as they usually take up less space and look fantastic.
This resurgence has led to the development of new machines, most recently, a pinnie that some are calling the greatest machine ever made - The Wizard of Oz. Designed by Jersey Jack Pinball Inc, The Wizard of Oz features an HD LCD monitor built into the backboard, which plays clips from the original movie whenever a play feature is triggered, like 'extra ball' or 'jackpot'. Retailing at around $12,000 in Australia, this limited edition machine has become the white whale for many collectors.
Most machines come in well under this price tag, and their trade in showrooms like Capital Pinball and on the online second-hand market provide a good indication of how the overall economy is tracking.
During the Global Financial Crisis, I was able to save my pennies and go on the hunt for one of my favourite machines, Bally's 1995 Theatre of Magic. Featuring dot-matrix animation and electro-magnets to make the ball jump around the play-field, 'like magic', a good Theatre would usually go for around $6,000.
I was able to pick one up at a showroom in Sydney for $4,500. 'Why so cheap?' I asked the forlorn store owner. 'No one's buying and I'm trying to get rid of stock,' was the reply. The store went out of business not long after and as cruel emphasis of the economic times, was replaced by a funeral home.
In a sign that confidence in the Australian economy has lifted, a quick whiz around the online markets shows a Theatre of Magic in Australia now goes for around $6-7,000. While I doubt the Federal Treasurer will tout these stats from the dispatch box in Question Time, it is an indication that people are starting to reach into their pockets to snap up big toys for girls and boys.
That being said, the market is still sketchy. The desired prices for most machines aren't being met and haggling a grand or two off the price is still the order of the day -- it remains a buyers' market. Even with negotiations, buyers are more likely to walk away until they find a better deal, than stretch themselves on their favourite machine.
It could be that the downturn in China has made people cautious on pinball purchases, or the fall in commodity prices. There's also employment uncertainty in some states with large infrastructure and mining projects hanging in the balance due to lengthy approvals processes and frivolous legal challenges.
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that according to the pinball wizards of Australia, the economy has moved a fair way from 'TILT'. The ball is still in play, though we haven't yet won an 'extra ball' or triggered the jackpot feature.
Hopefully governments at every level will get their flippers firing and send our economy into the all-time best players list.