An opportunity lost

It’s been five years since the 2010 federal election. Five years since Julia Gillard shook hands with Andrew Wilkie and agreed to legislate poker machine reforms, thereby gaining his support and allowing Labor to form a minority government.

We all know what happened next. Australia’s poker machine industry went into overdrive, condemning everything that was proposed and campaigning long and hard to shut the reforms down. In opposition, the Coalition committed to repealing any legislation that was passed.

The clubs industry led the fight with a $20 million war chest, a host of friendly supporters including a priest and several sports figures, and two separate campaigns targeting Wilkie and Labor.

Andrew Wilkie and Julia Gillard in 2010
Andrew Wilkie and Julia Gillard in 2010

Wilkie held his nerve throughout; Labor blinked. They caved in, reneged on their agreement and delivered watered-down reforms that satisfied no one. Shortly after that, they were voted out and the Coalition, true to their word (threat?), scrapped the gambling reform legislation, weak though it was. Only one party, the Greens, remained committed to supporting real poker machine reforms, but their voice wasn’t loud enough to be heard.

The battle was over, the opportunity lost. But imagine for a moment what would have happened if Labor had held their nerve.

By now, the reforms package would already have been implemented. The majority of poker machines in Australia would already have been converted to $1 maximum bets, and the rest (the big-spending machines) would require a pre-commitment card to use them.

We’d be used to it by now. It would be normal. Most of us wouldn’t even notice; only 30% of Australian adults ever use poker machines. Only 4% gamble on them regularly. And of those regulars, nine out of ten never bet more than $1 a spin anyway.

The difference is that those who are susceptible, those who are targeted by the addictive tricks the industry uses, would have tools at their disposal to stop them developing an addiction in the first place.

Neil Lawrence’s documentary “Ka-Ching! Pokie Nation” exposed the raft of techniques and strategies employed to keep people gambling at the machines. They highlighted how poker machine gambling was proven to be akin to cocaine addiction in the way it affected the brain.

We could have had tools in place to prevent this; to slow down the pace, allow people to set binding limits, empower people to stay in control. We should have had this. Instead, we got nothing.

In the five years since Gillard and Wilkie shook hands, Australians have lost over $60 billion on poker machines. That alone is a staggering amount of money, but the human cost has been far, far greater. The addiction walks hand in hand with depression, anxiety and fear; poker machines have contributed more than their fair share to family breakdown, financial ruin, domestic violence and suicide. The industry has harmed our society far more than it has helped.

One in six regular poker machine gamblers experiences addiction. That makes every poker machine a revolver with a single bullet in the cylinder. Spin, and press. Press, and spin.

It could have been so different.

3 thoughts on “An opportunity lost

  • November 12, 2015 at 4:47 pm
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    It is up to the politicians to bring gambling back to where it was in 1985. The only thing the politicians take notice of is preselection or the polls.

  • November 30, 2015 at 3:12 pm
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    Whoa there! Let us get same facts straight.

    Wilkie negotiated his idea of reform of the pokie industry. Julia Gillard agreed to try ti implement it in return for his support to form govt.

    Everyone was better off, Wilkie got attention for the pokies issue and the promise of action at the federal level for the first time in history. The ALP got government. The rest of us were spared vicious Coalition rule and got a chance of progressive government.

    which needed all the Independent’s votes) the ALP gov’t had to negotiate every single piece of legislation they passed. The pokie industry targeted these Independents.

    Julia Gillard tried to negotiate the passage of Wilkie’s bill. She could not get the numbers for pre-commitment to start within 12 months, as Wilkie wanted. She negotiated a trial of pre-commitment, (which is normal practice anyway) and for all machines built from 2013 to have pre-commitment technology built in so it could be switched on at any time. Retro-fitting old machines was out.

    There were other reforms too, as part of the package. It was not everything Wilke wanted but it was a good start. And the first ever federal intervention.

    Julia Gillard met with Julia Gillard every week. She truly wanted to help people harmed by pokie machines, and to reduce gambling addiction. She thought she had a good working relationship with Wilkie.

    She crafted the best possible plan possible at the time. Gillard and her team put the plan to Wilkie and came away believing he supported it, as a woking compromise, open to advancement in the future.

    Now stop and think about it. By now every pokie machine manufactured since 2013 would be ready to be switched on to precommitment, gone would be the retrofitting cost excuse. The trial would have run, bugs worked out and bolstered the argument for change.

    All the other parts of the plan would have helped existing addicts and started to change the threat posed by electronic gambling. The base for the Feds to act on pokie addiction would have been established. How much easier it would have been for the next progressive federal government to extend action on the pokies, if five years ago the negotiated legislation had been passed?

    Wilkie left the meeting with Julia Gillard and her team, with them believing a deal had been done, a suitable compromise reached and action on the scourge of pokie machines about to begin.

    The next morning Gillard announced the package. Then Wilkie held a presser where he rejected everything, and in doing so sunk all the gains to be made. Then he personally attacked Julia Gillard, calling into account her integrity. Gillard and her team were shocked. They had been blindsided and the people addicted to pokies and the ones who would become addicts were the losers.

    Not only did Wilkie withdraw his support, without notice or consultation, he chose to denigrate Julia Gillard on her personal qualities.

    Wilkie then tried to do what Gillard had already done, get support for his full plan. He found out what Gillard had learned: the support was not there from all the Independents. In that parliament it was all or nothing. Wilkie ended up with nothing. The Liberal/National Coalition,the clubs & pubs, the pokie industry, the pawn shops and pay-day lenders all won. Wilkie and Gillard lost. But most importantly, the victims of the pokie scourge lost, big time.

    Wilkie, like The Greens many times, do not recognise that half a loaf is better than starving. With half a loaf in your gut, you have the basis to find something better.
    if you refuse the half, holding out for all the bread, you get too weak to fight for more. You die and your enemies win. There is no honour in purity at the expense of the suffering of others. Many people paid a high price for Wilkie’s ‘principled stand.’

    It is fashionable to blame the ALP for not being pure enough, but the ALP forms government, The Greens are half a century from that. They can take all the principled stands they like, but when the push comes to shove, minority government is all about compromise,canny negotiations, and taking smaller wins to prepare for the later, bigger ones. Bull at the gate. my way or the high way attitudes leave you with a big fat zero. That is what Wilkie found out when he tried that with the Independents. and a vulnerable minority progressive government.

    Contemplate what the pokie landscape would have been like, if the Gillard legislation had been passed, if Wilkie had not put his sense of right before the suffering of millions.

    I do, and it makes me weep for the senselessness of one man’s ego.

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