How Gillard Squibbed On Gambling Reform


Poker machine reform is dead.

That’s the upshot of the "negotiations" between the government and Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie, as we reported last week.

Sure, there will be some modest new regulations imposed on the gaming industry. There will be a trial of pre-commitment technology in the ACT. And there will be some modest restrictions on gambling advertising. But, in the main, the freedom of big clubs, casinos and gaming companies to fleece ordinary Australians of billions each year has been preserved. Most importantly, of course, mandatory pre-commitment for high-rolling poker machines across the country is not happening.

It’s a win for the factions and a loss for the Australian community.

The excuse given by the Prime Minister, and gamely trotted out by a series off frontbenchers in her support, is that mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines did not have the support of the House of Representatives, including of the key independents, and would probably have been voted down.

It was a transparently thin argument that unravelled within hours, as commentators and some of the independents themselves asked why the Government didn’t put the legislation to the floor of Parliament to find out.

Meanwhile, Andrew Wilkie vented his frustration, ending his ongoing arrangement with the Government (although stopping short of promising to vote against Labor in any no-confidence motion). "The Government has failed to seize the opportunity to enact genuinely meaningful poker machine reform," he wrote in his media release. "This Parliament presents a remarkable opportunity to finally do something about poker machine problem gambling and its devastating social and financial damage cost. But instead the Government took the easy way out."

Wilkie is right. The Gillard Government has squibbed it on gaming machine reform. The issue is popular with the electorate but deeply unpopular with powerful vested interests within our political system. The clubs lobby has poured millions into their anti-reform campaign, and they’ve succeeded. Score another point for the power of big marketing, at the expense of democracy.

Malcolm Farnsworth put it best today over on the ABC’s Drum.

"Is there anyone who seriously believes this is an honest attempt to tackle problem gambling," he asks, "and not an expedient exercise in placating the powerful clubs industry, especially in New South Wales and Queensland?"

If there is, you’d be hard pressed to find them in the media. The reaction to the Gillard Government’s backdown on poker machine reform has been stinging. Nearly everyone has agreed with Tony Abbott’s assessment of the deal, as a "betrayal" of independent MP Andrew Wilkie.

There have been a few commentators that have begged to differ. Rob Burgess in Business Spectator makes an important point, which is that Gillard and Labor never took poker machine reform to the electorate as a major election policy in 2010. Poker machine reform, he writes, is a bit like the carbon tax: a policy cobbled together by Gillard to win the support of the Greens and independents. As such, Tony Abbott can’t logically argue that passing a carbon tax was dishonest, while simultaneously arguing that Gillard should have honoured her promise to Andrew Wilkie.

Unfortunately, logic doesn’t play a particularly significant role in political debate. Abbott is a street-fighter, willing and able to weaponise whatever blunt object he finds close to hand. It doesn’t matter that the Coalition doesn’t support poker machine reform. What matters is that the issue can be used as a bludgeon with which to renew the attack on the Prime Minister’s character. The poker machine schemozzle has been simply provided further ammunition.

After 24 hours of beating up on the Prime Minister, the Opposition then found a juicier target: embattled New South Wales Labor MP Craig Thomson. Thomson, you might recall, is the fellow at the centre of an expenses scandal that dates back to his time as an office bearer with the Health Services Union. Thomson continues to deny the allegations put against him, but mud tends to stick.

After giving Julia Gillard all sorts of trouble last year, the last person the Prime Ministerial bunker wanted to see splashed all over the media was Thomson. But that’s what happened this week, after Thomson penned an opinion piece for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, ostensibly in defence of the gambling reform compromise.

"The Prime Minister’s decision at the weekend was a victory for common sense," Thomson wrote. "It was timely and important. The PM provided judgment and skill to course a path that is sensible and logical."

What proved rather less timely, judicious and skilful were Thomson’s next remarks. "The result this week is a big win for NSW Labor MPs who have argued this position strongly for the past year," he concluded, appearing to congratulate his own factional colleagues for killing off an important piece of social reform. You’ve got to hand it to the New South Wales ALP: they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Predictably, the comments were seized upon in the next media cycle, allowing the Opposition to make Thomson and his dubious record an issue all over again. The ALP had apparently already nixed a proposed Thomson fundraiser at a swanky restaurant. Now this. You can just about hear the heads slamming on desks as exasperated party strategists wonder how they keep Thomson in his box.

The poker machine debate has again demonstrated that when it comes to the day-to-day management of the media cycle, Labor struggles. All the more reason, therefore, to be getting on with the job of implementing policies that play to Labor’s core values — which, you would have thought, is exactly what gambling reform represents.

Some aspects of the reforms Gillard announced on Saturday are in fact laudable, notably the new limit on ATM withdrawals at gaming venues (excluding casinos, mind you) of $250. More money for gambling support programmes is also welcome. But surely a Labor government entering its fifth year in office can aim for something slightly more ambitious than an intention to introduce commitment technology (though not necessarily pre-commitment itself) by the end of 2016.

In any case, as so often under Julia Gillard’s leadership, the merits of the policy itself have been obscured by the unsavoury optics.

If there was no prior promise to Wilkie, and a Labor government was simply announcing a trial of pre-commitment technologies in the ACT, it would have been welcomed by gambling reform advocates, and ignored by everyone else. Instead, because of the charged significance of the agreement with the Member for Denison, the issue has again become about whether Julia Gillard is breaking another promise, with some added Thomson sleaze thrown in.

As I argued here last week, the end result is a compromise that pleases nobody. Obviously, it’s not going to satisfy anti-gambling advocates. Nor is it likely to convince Clubs Australia to call off the attack. And it won’t do much for Labor’s support in marginal seats in 2013.

I feel sorry for Andrew Wilkie. It’s never easy getting traction on an important issue as an independent. Even Peter Reith thinks it is "very unfair that today he looks like the loser". It’s hard to see Wilkie retaining his seat in the next Parliament. But, as a politician who has put a difficult reform ahead of his own political survival, and has been prepared to back himself to get the outcome he campaigned on, he deserves considerable respect.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.