It’s finally happened. After countless weeks of playing hardball, independent MP Andrew Wilkie today announced that he will throw his support behind the Federal Government’s National Gambling Reform Bill.
The story was broken in the Fairfax press by Richard Willingham (who is making a habit of breaking stories such as these). It’s a bold move by Wilkie, who had previously stated that he couldn’t support the Bill in its current state and had insisted on a number of changes before he would even consider it.
The core of the Bill is the requirement to have pre-commitment technology operational in all Australian poker machines by 2016. All well and good, but when the Government released the bill for public feedback in mid February, there was no reference to the possibility, or even the ability, of making pre-commitment a mandatory solution. Similarly, there was no commitment in the Bill to staging a trial of the technology, only a half-hearted “if a trial occurs” buried right at the end of the document.
My thoughts on the original Bill are no secret. It was a disgrace. I published this article (The Government’s pokies reform bill is a farce) on The Drum at the beginning of March, and the title pretty much sums it up. It was worse than nothing.
So what’s changed? What has the Government done to the Bill to get Wilkie on board? That remains to be seen; the amended Bill has yet to be released publicly.
However, there were a number of non-negotiable demands made by Wilkie to the Government (specifically FaHCSIA minister Jenny Macklin) that needed to be addressed before he would consider supporting the Bill. They include:
• ensuring that pre-commitment technology for poker machines could be quickly and easily switched to a mandatory mode of operation;
• ensuring that the proposed trial of pre-commitment technology was covered in the Bill;
• ensuring that the proposed trial of pre-commitment technology was a trial of MANDATORY pre-commitment;
• ensuring that the assessment of the trial would be undertaken independently by the Productivity Commission;
• ensuring that the proposed trial of pre-commitment technology was not compromised by proximity to venues outside the trial area.
Have these been addressed? I don’t know. What I do know is that at his midday press conference, Wilkie confirmed that he would be supporting the Bill. He said he was doing so “reluctantly” because it was the “best we’re going to get”. That doesn’t fill me with great hope, to be honest, but the signs are there that this Bill is a better proposition than was originally put forward.
In his press conference, Wilkie explicitly confirmed that the pre-commitment trial must have access to data from surrounding areas. This is a significant change to the original legislation, and its inclusion in the Bill indicates that the matter of the trial has also been addressed.
And Wilkie has previously indicated that amendments proposed by the Government relating to changing to a mandatory pre-commitment system by “flicking a switch” satisfied his demands on that point.
It seems a safe bet that both of these issues have actually been addressed; Wilkie just released this statement on his website where he confirms that this is the case. He also reiterates his commitment to ongoing reform.
Ultimately, my opinion is that if (and only if) the requested amendments have been made, then this Bill should proceed. Working on the assumption that they have indeed been addressed, I am pleased to see Wilkie support it and I hope it makes it through Parliament… something which is still not assured.
There are many who will disagree with this position. They say that the Bill is fundamentally flawed and should never be passed, regardless of any changes that might be made. I disagree. If the technical capacity for mandatory pre-commitment is firmly legislated (something that was completely absent from the original Bill) then that is a measure worth supporting. It does not, however, mean that further avenues of reform should not still be explored; bet limits and reduced jackpots are another option that is doing the rounds, and which could easily coexist with the Government’s Bill.
I will be keeping an eye out for the amended legislation, and I will go over it with a fine-toothed comb when it does finally come my way. But there is one more thing that gives me a reason to be cautiously optimistic.
A couple of weeks ago, I testified before the Joint Senate Committee on Gambling Reform. Andrew Wilkie was there, along with many others, and we had the chance to speak informally about a number of issues, including gambling reform. While that conversation is off-the-record, I was left with no doubt whatsoever about either his commitment to this cause, or his desire to bring about real and effective reform.
At the end of the day, despite all the obituaries and political manoeuvring, poker machine reform still isn’t dead. We can only hope it stays that way.