Deep in the bowels of Clubs Australia lies the poker machine war room: a reinforced construction of concrete and steel, impervious to attack or common sense. There are no clocks, the lighting is dim and tacky electronic music warbles through the loudspeakers. The air is redolent with the tang of stale beer and cold coffee.
A large table sits in the middle of the room, covered by a map of Australia. Miniature poker machines are clustered all along the east coast; Western Australia, on the other hand, is completely blank save for the inscription “Here There Be Dragons.”
Confidential papers lie scattered on the floor all around the table; used once, discarded, forgotten. And up on one wall, illuminated by a series of spotlights, is the campaign goal writ large:
Fiction? Of course. Still there’s no denying that the clubs industry is currently going after Independent MP Andrew Wilkie with renewed vigour. That’s no mean feat, considering how much time and energy they’ve devoted to the task over the past couple of years.
Leading the new attack is a relatively new kid on the block, Jeff House. Sure, House may not have the media profile or experience of someone like Clubs Australia/NSW boss Anthony Ball (and let’s face it, Ball has spinning his line of attack for quite some time now) but as the Chief Executive of Clubs ACT, House has stumbled upon his fifteen minutes of fame and he’s damn well going to make the most of it.
And that means House has to GET WILKIE!!!
Think I’m being a bit silly? Don’t forget that Clubs ACT have found themselves at the very centre of the poker machine debate. The trial of mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines will happen (if it happens at all) in Canberra. The Federal government is talking to Clubs ACT about the nature of the trial. They have power of veto, and they know it.
And don’t forget that the clubs industry likes the government’s proposed legislation. It will implement technology that no one will have to use if they don’t want to… or in the case of poker machine addicts, would avoid like the plague. Hell, I know I would have, back in the day. That means their revenue stream is ensured, at least in the short term.
But Wilkie is the fly in the ointment. He knows the legislation is flawed; he knows the trial looks like being a joke. And so he’s doing whatever he can, with the advice of experts to guide him, to make sure that both the trial and the legislation are actually worthwhile.
That’s where House comes in. At the end of February, when Wilkie was telling everyone that he couldn’t support the government’s proposal because of its shortcomings, Clubs ACT issued a media release titled “ACT Trial Not up for Negotiation with Mr Wilkie.” In this release, House stated that Wilkie was not involved in negotiations about the trial, and that it was essentially none of his business. Gee, I wish someone had told FAHCSIA minister Jenny Macklin that before she spent days negotiating with Wilkie in an attempt to get the trial and the legislation sorted out before parliament rose on Thursday!
But wait, there’s more. Having made this point, House went on a rampage. He said (and I quote):
“Mr Wilkie’s contribution to this debate has so far been essentially been a wholly destructive one. Since involving himself in this issue, he undermined the constructive approach that was established by the Productivity Commission; he shattered any hope of a bipartisan approach between Labor and the Coalition; he ruined any prospect of the States and Territories willingly participating in reform; he wrecked the considered and agreed pathway for achieving real inroads into harm minimization and utterly destroyed the strong support industry had for that pathway.”
I’m surprised there wasn’t something in there about kicking puppies! Seriously Jeff, do you actually believe any of this? Love him or hate him, there is no way ANY of these statements can be levelled at Wilkie.
YOUR industry has been attacking the Productivity Commission and their report into gambling since it was released.
YOUR industry has waged war on Labor and thrown your support behind the Coalition, both vocally and financially.
YOUR industry has campaigned hard at state level to ensure any reforms get your tick of approval (and nowhere was this more obvious than in NSW, where Barry O’Farrell signed a deal with Clubs NSW before the state election).
If this rant isn’t defamatory, it’s damn close. May as well blame Wilkie for the decline in Australian cricket, it makes just as much sense.
But House wasn’t done yet. Fast forward to the end of last week. The government’s gambling reform bill didn’t pass muster in time to be tabled in parliament, and both Wilkie and Macklin have agreed to continue discussions until this happens.
Seems that’s not good enough for House. He spoke to the Canberra times the day after the legislation was postponed, and the result was an article titled “ClubsACT flays Wilkie over pokie laws.” In this article, House is quoted as saying:
“Andrew Wilkie is playing a very dangerous game by formally linking the legislation and the trial.”
“In linking the two he is jeopardising both because if the amendments pertaining to the trial aren’t acceptable to us, then there will be no trial and conversely if he is not happy with the legislation, there will be no legislation.”
Oh dear. Never mind that both Wilkie and Macklin had already gone on record stating that they were both satisfied with their discussions around the trial. What House is signalling here is that Clubs ACT can and will refuse to undertake the trial at the slightest provocation, and that they’ll blame Wilkie for their actions.
But it gets worse. House went on to say:
“The [federal] government and ClubsACT have achieved more in the last two months than Andrew Wilkie has achieved in the last two years.”
Oh, sure. Wilkie dragged poker machine reform kicking and screaming onto the national agenda, he forced the issue, started a national conversation about the topic which won’t stop any time soon, and was the subject of a multi-million dollar industry campaign designed to shut him up.
Whereas Clubs ACT have held a couple of meetings to decide whether or not to accept $37.1 million from the government to run a trial.
You be the judge.
Ultimately, Jeff House’s desire to tear down Andrew Wilkie, to neutralise the threat he poses to an industry-friendly reform package that will help no one, has resulted in one frenzied baseless attack after another. I really can’t wait for all this to be sorted out, if only so that House’s fifteen minutes of fame can run out, and he can slip back into obscurity. We have enough craziness already.