Pokie Reform On Life Support


The Government is walking back from its agreement with Tasmanian Independent Andrew Wilkie to introduce mandatory pre-commitment on poker machines.

Since returning from holidays for 2012, Julia Gillard has repeatedly refused to restate her support of mandatory pre-commitment for gaming machine punters. Negotiations are currently underway because Wilkie set a May deadline for the legislation so that mandatory pre-commitment could be introduced by 2014. That outcome seems less and less likely. If the 2010 deal with Andrew Wilkie is not dead, it’s certainly on life support.

It’s not hard to discern the cause of the Government’s new-found caution when it comes to mandatory pre-commitment. The clubs lobby and its allies in the media and in the New South Wales Rugby League have waged a savage and dishonest campaign against the changes. Not only has that campaign been highly cynical, it has also been highly personal, with Labor MPs such as Mike Kelly in Eden-Monaro personally singled out in nasty attacks.

There’s no question that Labor backbenchers and factional leaders have grown worried about the electoral impact of the clubs campaign. But until now, the Government has had little choice but to go along with poker machine reform. Gillard inked a deal with Wilkie in the wake of the 2010 election as the price for his support of her minority government. And Wilkie’s vote on the floor of the House of Representatives was of course essential for the survival of the Gillard Government. So for most of 2011 Labor did its best to grit its teeth and ignore the campaign.

All that changed in the last sitting week of Parliament last year, when Labor enticed disaffected Liberal-National backbencher Peter Slipper to turn his back on his colleagues and become the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. With Slipper ensconced in the Speaker’s chair, his vote is no longer available to Tony Abbott and the Coalition. That gives Labor an extra vote in the person of former speaker Harry Jenkins. It also makes Andrew Wilkie much less relevant.

As a result, the imperative to keep Wilkie happy, lest he bring down the Government, has suddenly evaporated. And that has given Gillard the wriggle room she needs to craft a more clubs-friendly compromise on gaming machine reform. While the Prime Minister is staying silent on the progress of the negotiations with Wilkie, various newspaper reports indicate that the deal on the table is now a delayed introduction to mandatory pre-commitment, slipping out to 2016, and only after a "full trial" of the measures in a sample jurisdiction like the Australian Capital Territory.

The backsliding on mandatory pre-commitment may appease Labor backbenchers and factional power brokers. But whether this is good politics is open to question. Most opinion polls show that the public supports tighter gaming machine regulations, including mandatory pre-commitment. Nor are the big clubs themselves particularly popular, outside a few deep pockets of support in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane. Pressure groups like GetUp! are ramping up their anti-gaming campaigns, and veteran spin doctors Neil Lawrence and Sue Cato have also announced they are going to work on the anti-gaming cause.

The flip-flopping also gives Tony Abbott yet another opportunity to portray the Gillard Government as sneaky and untrustworthy, an opportunity he is seizing with his customary alacrity. It’s very easy to characterise the revised timetable for mandatory pre-commitment as simply another Gillard backdown, or indeed a double-cross. The Coalition is currently bitterly divided internally over subsidies for the car industry, so the Government would be wise to allow as much attention as possible be diverted from its own undertakings.

Nor is it clear that a compromise deal with Wilkie will persuade Clubs Australia to call off the attack dogs. Indeed, if the debate over the mining tax is any guide, the clubs lobby may instead take the current debate as a sign of weakness, and press on with the assault. Like so many political compromises, the eventual result may please nobody.

If the pokies backdown is poor politics, it’s terrible policy.

The devastating social impact of poker machine addiction is well understood. Clamping down on the rights of vulnerable people to gamble away their life savings and ruin their family’s finances may indeed be a restriction of their liberty. But it is surely a justifiable restriction. Mandatory pre-commitment has already been trialled in South Australia, in Queensland and in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia (the evidence is reviewed by the Productivity Commission here).

Mandatory pre-commitment is no silver bullet but all the trials showed a significant number of gamers used the pre-commitment schemes to monitor and limit their daily expenditure. The Canadian trials, in particular, showed a reduction in total expenditure by gamers after the introduction of the scheme. No wonder the big clubs are worried about a similar scheme in Australia.

The new year seems to have rung in a new political pragmatism from the Gillard government in a number of areas. Labor continues to try and put distance between itself and the Greens on key issues such as forestry and the Murray-Darling Basin. On the contentious issue of Tasmanian forestry, the Prime Minister and Greens leader Bob Brown are far from agreement, with Brown apparently suspending his regular meetings with Gillard until the issue can be resolved. A $276 million deal to try and end native forest logging in the island state was struck between the federal and Tasmanian Labor governments back in August, but despite this, Forestry Tasmania continues to log in native forests. Julia Gillard and Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings appear to have little appetite for enforcing the rules of their own deal in this regard. (Gillard denies that there was a breach, arguing that the exact location of logging coups was not specified in the agreement.)

Meanwhile, on water, the Government is playing politics with water allocation buy-backs in the Murray-Darling, ignoring the science and instead putting forward nonsensical proposals that will neither save the Murray-Darling, nor secure the long-term future of riverland irrigators. Scientists and environmentalists are finally mobilising to attack the new Murray-Darling Basin plan, which the influential Wentworth Group argues is the result of "manipulated science".

All in all, it’s a rather depressing beginning to 2012, especially for those who were hoping the Gillard Government would use the political momentum it built up in the later part of 2011 to implement evidence-based policy and burnish its rather threadbare progressive credentials.

In all of these issues, the choice is between the broader interests of the nation, and the narrow self-interest of industries and lobby groups that stand to lose out because of necessary reforms. By backsliding on these issues, Labor wins few votes in the marginal seats, but it hastens the disaffection of its already disappointed base.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.