Poker machines have become a very dangerous game for the Labor government.
Since Julia Gillard and Andrew Wilkie shook hands on poker machine reform in late 2010, the clubs industry has waged a relentless war on mandatory pre-commitment, $1 bets and the federal Labor party as a whole.
Clubs Australia and Clubs NSW (the same organisation, really) have led from the front. The Un-Australian campaign, the Won’t Work Will Hurt campaign, targeting federal Labor MPs in their electorates with personalised billboards and leaflets, trotting out reputable semi-celebrities to support their cause… they’ve unleashed a flood of misinformation and aggression against the government and its supporters the likes of which has never before been seen in this country. Their sustained assault makes even the mining industry’s efforts look tame by comparison.
Make no mistake: the clubs have been running scared from the prospect of either mandatory pre-commitment or $1 maximum bets for poker machines. Despite the fact that either change, properly implemented, will have little to no impact on recreational gamblers but will be a game-changer for poker machine addicts and those with developing problems, the industry has refused point-blank to entertain the possibility that either of these might eventually get up.
Clubs Australia’s preferred position is no change at all. They even included this in the MOU they signed with the NSW Coalition before the NSW state election. But at a pinch, they would settle for voluntary pre-commitment, knowing full well that it places the onus on the gambler to control their spending and absolves the industry of all responsibility, all blame.
So that makes recent developments all the more interesting.
It’s common knowledge by now that Gillard and Wilkie have parted ways. Labor has put forward a draft bill that covers the implementation of voluntary pre-commitment, and intends to trial the technology in the ACT. The trial is by no means assured; it’s being assessed by Clubs ACT and there is no guarantee that it will cover mandatory pre-commitment, or even take place at all. There are issues with the gambling demographic of the ACT, not to mention the very real possibility of people travelling to venues in towns such as Queanbeyan that have not committed to partaking in the trial.
Wilkie, after initially promising his support for the bill, has changed his position. He wants a raft of changes made to the draft version, including adding the trial to the legislation and the implementation of $1 maximum bets as a fallback proposition. He has the support of Senator Nick Xenophon and the Greens in this.
For what it’s worth, I agree with their position. As I wrote on The Drum recently, the reform bill in its current state is a farce. After being initially optimistic, I have come to realise that this legislation, and the trial that may or may not accompany it, are too seriously compromised to be of any use to anyone, except the industry.
And the industry? They love it. This bill is exactly what they were hoping for. A long-term plan for voluntary pre-commitment with sufficient confusion about the possibility of mandatory pre-commitment in the future, and a trial that they can manipulate any way they like. No mention of bet limits. What’s not to like?
Which puts them in what could be an awkward position. The clubs have been combating the government over this issue for so long, it would seem unthinkable that they would now leap to their defence. Yet there’s no awkwardness here. The clubs know no shame, and consequently that’s exactly what has happened.
We’ve already seen how far Clubs Australia was prepared to go to sabotage poker machine reform; now that they look like getting what they want, we’re starting to see just how far they’ll go to protect it. It was Clubs Australia that spilled the beans on discussions they had with Labor MP Alan Griffin about the possibility of Kevin Rudd “killing off” poker machine reforms. This revelation came only hours before Rudd unexpectedly resigned as Foreign Minister and made a woefully unprepared challenge for the Labor leadership, and was the only allegation made during that time that spurred Rudd to threaten defamation proceedings.
I know I have a particular interest in this, but surely I’m not the only one who can see some form of cause-and-effect here. Having secured what they wanted from Gillard, the last thing Clubs Australia would have wanted was a change at the top.
Additionally, the clubs have effectively taken control of the trial process before it’s even truly begun. They continue to claim that the trial will be about proving the viability of mandatory pre-commitment rather than fine-tuning the technology, and even though Clubs ACT have indicated that they will (probably) agree to the trial, Clubs NSW have made no such promises about the towns that lie just outside the ACT’s borders.
And now that Wilkie is threatening the passage of this bill through parliament, Clubs Australia is going after him with renewed vigour. When news first broke that Wilkie may oppose the legislation a couple of weeks ago, Clubs ACT boss Jeff House has this to say:
“I don’t care how much Mr Wilkie is currently suffering from relevance deprivation syndrome.”
And on the weekend, Clubs Australia spokesman Jeremy Bath had this to say:
“Andrew Wilkie is just having an enormous dummy spit.”
Their tactic is obvious. They are trying to portray Wilkie as someone who values his time in the spotlight more than his position on reform; as someone who is upset at not getting his way.
The way I see it, Wilkie is sticking to his guns. Maximum $1 bets was the issue he campaigned on before the federal election, and he’s committed to doing everything he can to getting real, effective legislation through parliament. He’s meeting with Jenny Macklin today to discuss a range of changes to the legislation.
From this point, Labor needs to be very, very careful indeed. Clubs Australia has incurred a great deal of negative public sentiment as a result of their campaigning; if they start supporting the government now it will cause irreparable damage to a Labor brand that has already taken a number of telling blows. Industry support for their poker machine reforms will only serve to highlight how compromised they really are. And it’s hard to rail against “vested interests” when the most powerful vested interests in the country have suddenly taken your side.
Clubs Australia doesn’t care. They can absorb all the negative press in the world… at the end of the day they’re not an elected body. They’ll just carry on doing what they do, looking after their bottom line and protecting their interests.
But governments come and go. And an association with the clubs, even if it is only in the minds of the public, would be fatal for this one.