Praise for Wilkie's rage against the machines


Last Friday, most media were predicting that Andrew Wilkie and Julia Gillard were about to announce a compromise gambling reform plan. But the deal broke down in final talks Friday night. On Saturday, Wilkie bitterly denounced Gillard's conduct and ended his one-year-old agreement to support Labor.

'I regard the Prime Minister to be in breach of the written agreement she signed, leaving me no option but to honour my word and end my current relationship with her Government.'

Gillard went ahead with the compromise reform plan (now Labor's alone). This plan does not require any legislation before 2014, i.e. not under the current Government.

This story says important things about the difficulties of achieving reform, and about the political power of the wealthy and ruthless gaming lobby.

Rob Oakeshott on Friday said he would not support legislation before a substantial, lengthy trial. This gave Gillard the final lever to abandon her 2010 promise to Wilkie of submitting to Parliament nationwide mandatory precommitment legislation in the term of the present Government.

Oakeshott and Tony Windsor, along with many worried Labor MPs, were wilting under the heat of popular campaigns steered and funded by the gaming lobby but attracting genuine grassroots support from worried voters fearing the loss of valued club-subsidised local amenities and services in outer suburbs and regions. Commonsense dictated delay and trials.

Gillard's compromise deal extends the reform timelines to the next government. There will be a 12 months voluntary trial of mandatory precommitment technology in all ACT clubs starting in February 2013, with comparative data collection in unaffected adjacent Queanbeyan clubs.

The Government will legislate in early 2014 for the Productivity Commission to review these trial results, and to recommend whether the Government should proceed with nationwide mandatory precommitment. Meanwhile, all new poker machines will require installed mandatory precommitment technology by 2013.

An accompanying set of modest but useful operational reforms (most thoroughly reported in a 'How the deal will work' box in The Australian on 23 January) completes the package.

It is certainly a step forward. But it is a lot slower than what Wilkie wanted. State governments, clubs and the gaming industry have welcomed the package, because it maintains revenue streams and it puts off hard choices until 2014 at the earliest and possibly well beyond.

What are the political consequences? Sydney Morning Herald commentator Phillip Coorey argues that Wilkie has merely put himself back in the camp of Windsor and Oakeshott, as Independents who will guarantee supply and only vote against the Government in cases of serious misconduct. Lost only are Wilkie's weekly meetings with Gillard and Labor's special consideration of his interests.

Some of Wilkie's own words support this interpretation. Government sources take heart from this. The Caucus seems pretty united that Gillard made the best choice here, sweetened by a reasonable reform package to mollify some of Wilkie's supporters if not the man himself.

Yet Wilkie clearly feels betrayed, and will view any 'wild card' conduct issues like the Craig Thomson affair or the Speaker's role less generously than before last Friday. Will his often expressed desire for a full term Government and his distaste for many of Tony Abbott's policies prevail over such feelings? Abbott smells blood in the water. Labor's margin of safety is now narrower than it was last week.

The ruthless self-interest of the gaming lobby was nakedly revealed here. They threw a lot of money and effort into mobilising real public concern about loss of amenity in clubs.

Their power drowned out the moral argument — that it is not right to build community wellbeing and comforts on exploiting the misery of successive cohorts of poker machine problem gamblers, who incrementally lose control of their addiction with resulting tragedy to themselves and their families.

The Catholic tradition in Australia has always been more tolerant of alcohol and gambling than the 'wowser' Protestant tradition. But too many Catholics turn a blind eye to how today's poker machine technology and operating environment is designed to nurture dangerous (but profitable) addiction.

We are accountable as communities to deploy the best modern countervailing technology to protect our most vulnerable people. For too long this issue was swept under the carpet.

Wilkie has done us all a great service in bringing this issue to the front of national politics. He has kept his honour, and he has laid the foundations for Labor's incremental trials and improvements between now and 2014. None of this would have happened without him.

It is up to the rest of us now to maintain the fight he has begun, and to remind wavering MPs in the regions that there is another side to the argument of supporting communities. Or do we want our kids to play on green playing fields, and our families to enjoy subsidised meals out, paid for by the grief and terror of broken families and foreclosed family homes? 

Tony KevinTony Kevin is an author and former ambassador to Cambodia and Poland.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, Julia Gillard, Andrew Wilkie.pokies reform



submit a comment

Existing comments

"the political power of the wealthy and ruthless gaming lobby." How can we sustain a democracy when big money and big crime so successfully lure the 99% into their dens?

Janet | 24 January 2012  

This is a bit grand isn't it? Catholics this, Protestants that? Let's face it, gambling crosses denominational lines, and goes into the ranks of non believers, not to mention our Asian cousins who may or may not be Christian but who certainly have a reputation for fierce gambling. Is Pell about to issue an edict on poker machines? If so, what about the scourge of horse racing too? With anorexic jockeys, sex abused stable hands, underground activities, then there's the dogs, online gambling, sports betting, and on and on it all goes. Lauded by governments who appoint their mates to high spots within the gambling industry, and backed up when their mates also sling them either wads of cash or heap criticism upon them in the media for not grovelling low enough to them. Surely, that has nothing at all to do with a Godly stance? It's just human business as usual, plus we all know there is not a politician around with a single thread of moral fibre in them when it comes to 'cringe(ing) before the rich man's frown'.

Andy Fitzharry | 24 January 2012  

Well said, Tony. Your comments, especially the final paragraph, say it all. I see nothing wrong with gambling per se, as it is just a kind of contract with a number of other people that all will contribute some money, and the one who, by skill or chance, is the winner, takes it all. Poker machines are a whole different story, with a speeded up process that takes advantage of individuals' greed, or weakness. If we want a club to go to, we can pay for it; if we want sporting equipment for our kids, we can pay for it. We should not expect these things to be subsidised by the misery of others.

Peter Downie | 24 January 2012  

The results of the proposed trial are easily predictable. The ACT numbers will fall and the Queanbeyan numbers will rise. Why? Problem gamblers who do not want to be constrained and to precommit (which is contrary to the mind set of the problem gambler) will abandon the Act clubs and go to the Quenbeyan clubs, a twenty minute drive down the road.The control group (Queanbeyan clubs)should not be accessible to the test group (ACT clubs) patrons. This is not a well designed trial and the results will be meaningless. The control group should be in Sydney or somewhere inaccessible to ACT patrons and Queanbeyan clubs should be included with ACT clubs as the test group. Otherwise the whole exercise will be a waste of time and generate volumes of meaningless rhetoric. We do need a trial but it should not be a trial set up to deliver the government's option. Government should rather respond to a genuine trial in which confounding factors are eliminated.

john frawley | 24 January 2012  

I can understand why Wilkie feels 'betrayed' about poker machine reform. Problem gambling is an illness, like any addiction and I would think only sustained medical treatment and a recognition by the problem gambler of their predicament can bring about real change. Having said that, clubs with poker machines need to be aware of their responsibility in this issue. They do rely heavily on income from these machines - and I think most Australians see nothing wrong with the occasional 'flutter' - it is those addicted, and their families, who need help and whose interests must be paramount.

Pam | 24 January 2012  

Good item. Amidst all the political maneuvering, it highlights the major impact of today's poker machine technology and operating environment on those at risk of addiction and their families and friends - and the need for more decisive action about it.

Paul O'Callaghan | 24 January 2012  

Along with the watering down of the mining tax the latest back down of Wilkie's proposals by the government is another blow for democracy. In this instance the concerns of the wealthy poker machine lobby is being considered above the well being of the community.

Anne Schmid | 24 January 2012  

Julia Gillard's most valuable asset where Andrew Wilkie and The Greens are concerned is Tony Abbott - pokies reform and asylum seeker policy both revealing the unedifying lack of principle, morality and real leadership within the major parties.

Michelle Goldsmith | 24 January 2012  

In my opinion the issue is not poker machines, but the issue of abuse of power. All of a sudden we have a few little minds thinking they have the mandate to blackmail the Government and Opposition to gain a more publicity. We have many social issues in Australia and nobody denies that gambling is one of them. I am amazed why the self declared brigade of moral warriors led by Nick Xenophon and Andrew Wilkie does not work harder to control drug and alcohol abuse, crime and domestic violence. The issue is self promotion and power and the moral warriors would oppose the rising of the sun if it would help them to gain more media attention. I blame the big parties for not sitting down together to work out solutions to our countries problems instead of fighting like ally cats on heat.

Beat Odermatt | 24 January 2012  

I am still not able to understand how Eastern States "club-subsidised local amenities and services in outer suburbs and regions" require gambling to support them. We here in WA have "local amenities and services in outer suburbs and regions" with pokies limited to only one casino, Burswood.

Douglas Cllifford | 24 January 2012  

Sadly, we no longer enjoy democracy. We have demonocracy - 1% demons rule the 99%.

Cas | 24 January 2012  

Catholic or Protestant, we are hypocrites to apply for and accept money from gambling for the very latest in equipment and facilities, when we could easily moderate same, or raise the funds another way.

Marjorie | 24 January 2012  

This is a good political result because the government has rejected the aims of the 'do gooder' protestant wowser lobby for a nanny state. 'Do gooders' such as Andrew Wilkie, Tim Costello and Nick Xenophon remind me of the protestant wowser movement of the early 20th century which lobbied for a ban on the production, distribution and consumption of alcohol. The benefits of poker machine outweigh the disadvantages. Poker machine clubs provide good social meeting places for people and subsidised services for people on low incomes. The small minority of people who become addicted to gambling are generally poorly educated people who lack discipline. These people need to accept responsibility for their spending habits especially if it affects their dependents.

Mark Doyle | 25 January 2012  

Mark Doyle, this is not about lobbying for a ban on the production and use of poker machines, but for regulations that will minimise the harm that is caused to those who become addicted to what is (designed to be) a highly addictive behaviour. In the same way we have laws that regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol in order to minimise the social harms of excessive consumption. These range from RSA regulations to venue lockouts and even minimum floor prices in some areas that are particularly affected by the social harms of excessive alcohol consumption (e.g. Alice Springs). These, like the proposed pokies reforms, are not about wowserism but about social responsibility and harm minimisation.

Charles Boy | 25 January 2012  

I'm with those who query the necessity for our apparent dependence on club subsidies for local amenities. Tony Kevin's final paragraph said it perfectly. We have some good playing fields, but at what cost?

Joan Seymour | 26 January 2012  

Where is the rage against jailing babies though.

Marilyn Shepherd | 26 January 2012  

It is tooth fairy stuff if anyone expects our Church to show moral leadership on gambling controls .Our N/Qld Diocese has more than once applied for & aquired substantial monies from the State govt Gaming Fund .

John Kersh | 27 January 2012  

The industry has succeeded in changing the language. The euphemism, gaming, has replaced gambling. I am neither Protestant nor Catholic but Jewish so am not part of those culture wars. However, I think it is immoral to have an industry based on increasing human misery. I would close the casinos and outlaw pokies.

David | 27 January 2012  

Sad to see a publication of the standing of Eureka St. descending to sectarian put-downs such as 'Protestant wowsers.' Next we'll be seeing Protestant papers talking about 'dissolute Catholics'. Can we please keep the Northern Ireland sectarian nonsense out of Australian Christian makes all your other statements about social justice, bigotry, racism and divisive activity sound hollow.

Chris Beal. | 27 January 2012  

Thanks for comments. I must respond to Andy Fitzharry and - particularly - to Chris Beal. The reason I thought it relevant to mention the Catholic and Protestant traditions at all in an essay expressing support for Andrew Wilkie's anti-pokies campaign was simply that, because a tolerance of gambling is more part of the Cstholic tradition in Australia than it is of the Protestant tradition here - for reasons we can leave to the historians - Catholics would now seem to have a particular responsibility when we see one form of gambling now getting seriously out of hand - as msny Australians believe the pokies industry has got out of hand. I hope this makes my position more clear. We must all face this challenge together and the last thing I would want is for my essay to be misconstrued as being about sectarian differences.

tony kevin | 01 February 2012  

Similar Articles

Long road to the Indigenous referendum

  • John Warhurst
  • 27 January 2012

The proposed referendum follows the 2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations and provides an opportunity for this Labor era to be remembered whenever the Indigenous story is told. Passing a referendum is exceptionally difficult and there is no fool-proof recipe for success.


Beyond Australia's adolescent identity crisis

  • Fatima Measham
  • 26 January 2012

While Australia's early history is marked by violence, the Fraser Government's decision to accept nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, the Mabo decision, and Paul Keating's Redfern speech provide positive narrative touchstones that can help lead Australia to maturity.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up