As poker machine reform roars back onto the national agenda, an unexpected solution gathers momentum.
When Harry Jenkins resigned from his position as Speaker of the House of Representatives five months ago today, the chorus of voices predicting the death of poker machine reform was deafening. The argument was that with an extra vote in the Lower House, Labor was no longer beholden to Andrew Wilkie or his demands for reform. Never mind that poker machine reform was popular with voters from all states and parties; a bullocking industry campaign targeted at marginal ALP electorates had made the government very nervous about pursuing this reform package. Jenkins’ actions were seen as giving Julia Gillard’s party a way out.
This perspective was reinforced when Peter Slipper assumed the Speaker’s role. Not only did Labor gain a vote in the Lower House, but the Coalition lost one. The balance of power shifted perceptibly towards the government and poker machine reform seemed doomed.
A day may be a long time in politics; five months is an eternity. While history shows that Gillard did indeed walk away from the letter of her deal with Wilkie, resulting in the termination of their agreement, no one could have predicted the events of the past month. It seems Wilkie may yet have the final say in this matter.
The game began again in earnest in March. Having devised a weaker gambling reform bill as an alternative to their original arrangement, it turned out the Government still needed Wilkie’s support to get the bill passed in parliament. Wilkie stonewalled, demanding significant changes, and although the Government was desperate to table the bill before the Easter parliamentary break, it was put on hold. Negotiations started between Wilkie and Macklin to try and come to some form of compromise. Wilkie insisted that the bill include the capacity to make pre-commitment mandatory, as well as the provision for $1 maximum bets as a fallback measure. He gave Macklin a deadline of last Friday, and as the deadline expired, Wilkie received Macklin’s final offer. He announced that he would think about it.
Then came “Slippergate”. Allegations of sexual harassment and Cabcharge rorts against the new Speaker were splashed across every News Limited paper in the country, and as the media worked itself into a frenzy, Slipper decided to stand down from the Speaker’s role.
The balance of power shifted again. Suddenly Wilkie’s vote meant more to the Government than it had the week before, and he knew it. Slipper’s unfortunate circumstances had once again elevated Wilkie to a position where he held the cards. It was a lucky break for Wilkie, whose decision to deliberate over his response to Macklin’s amendments was masterful in hindsight.
But where to from here? Gillard’s government does not introduce any legislation that it thinks will be defeated. At the same time, they cannot afford to cave in completely to Wilkie and reverse their position yet again on poker machine reform; to do so would be to admit that they are not so much a minority government as a government held hostage.
But to do nothing is not an option. The public wants reform; the results from an exceptionally well-timed survey by independent research firm AMR (on behalf of the Stop The Loss Coalition) show that 70% of Australians want mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines, and a whopping 83% want $1 maximum bets. And doing nothing means losing Wilkie’s support, possibly for good. The uncertainty over Slipper’s future makes that an untenable position.
But there is still a way out; a third alternative that may yet be the best of all worlds for Wilkie, Gillard and the public who have reinforced that what they want is action.
The key is not the Government’s bill, which only covers voluntary pre-commitment. It is a separate bill, a private bill that was introduced into the Senate in March by Senators Xenophon, Madigan and Di Natale. This is the Poker Machine Harm Reduction Bill, which covers $1 maximum bets and $500 jackpots.
It’s no secret that $1 maximum bets was Wilkie’s original preference, well before he struck his deal with Gillard, and he has been extremely vocal on the subject in recent times. What’s not so well known is that pre-commitment (mandatory or voluntary) and $1 maximum bets for poker machines are not mutually exclusive. They can co-exist without any trouble at all.
Wilkie’s best chance now is to promise his support for the Government’s amended gambling reform bill, in exchange for a guarantee from Gillard for ALP support for the Senate bill. With the backing of the ALP, the Greens and Independents, the Senate bill would easily pass both houses, negating the need to include $1 maximum bets in the Government’s proposal. And with Wilkie’s support, the government’s bill would also pass comfortably.
The game is not over yet.