WHO would have thought it possible that Federal politics could get even murkier?
Pokies legislation has ClubsACT in a lather. Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie is now back in the game and will reluctantly support the Government legislation as the best thing available for the moment.
It was only last year he was shafted by Prime Minister Julia Gillard when she sponsored Liberal Peter Slipper into the role of Speaker. And man of the moment, now Independent, Craig Thomson, is also caught up in the pokies debate.
When Wilkie entered the cross-benches in the House of Representatives at the last election he joined a growing movement of concern regarding the impact of pokies on the community.
Before this election, Senate Greens had lined up alongside independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who had spent years in the upper house of the SA parliament, specifically elected on an anti-pokies platform.
Xenophon and the Greens had the debate on the boil in the Senate. However, the unprecedented power of the cross-benches in the lower house provided Wilkie with an extraordinary opportunity to bring about significant reform in a system of pre-commitment so that problem gamblers would not be able to squander their money on a whim.
When Gillard reneged on her commitment to serious poker machine reform in favour of Peter Slipper, it was Craig Thomson who published an opinion in “The Daily Telegraph” celebrating a victory for the pubs and clubs stating: “The Prime Minister’s decision at the weekend was a victory for common sense. It was timely and important”.
Thomson was calling for a voluntary system by the clubs rather than Wilkie’s approach.
Thomson may have considered it a sensible decision. However, this broken promise on the pokies reinforced the Opposition’s mantra that Gillard was not to be trusted. It is not surprising then that Wilkie went on to vote with the Opposition on suspending Thomson from parliament.
With the recent resurrection of the legislation and a Government compromise with Wilkie, the ACT Clubs, some of which have donated millions to ACT Labor, have come out fighting. But they sound desperate!
Jeff House, the chief executive of ClubsACT, even explained to Louise Maher on ABC radio that the Federal Parliament had “no constitutional right” to interfere with the arrangement between the industry and the Government for an ACT pokies trial. Wrong!
He might have just been loose with language, but the reality is the ACT is a Territory and the Federal parliament has already exercised its rights to override the Territory’s powers with regard to other moral issues, such as voluntary euthanasia and gay marriage.
The Government needs the support of the Greens for successful passage through the Senate. Is it simply a cynical move to have the legislation fail in the upper house? With Wilkie’s support of the pre-commitment trial and the Greens insisting on bets limited to a one-dollar maximum, it does appear that the Government will never have to face the outcome of successful legislation.
On May 17, representatives from 63 of Victoria’s 79 councils, for example, overwhelmingly supported the one-dollar notion as well as the reforms proposed in the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report on Gambling.
On the surface, trying and losing in the Senate does appear as a win for the Government. They will have tried to deliver their promise, but will be foiled in the Senate by recalcitrant Greens and never have to undermine their mates in the clubs industry.
However, at another level this approach will feed into the Opposition’s refrain about the extent to which the Prime Minister can be trusted. A genuine win would be for the Prime Minister to sit down with Wilkie, the Greens and Xenophon to nut out a compromise to bring about sensible reform of the pokie industry.
Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health.