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Poker Machine Doublespeak

It was a day for doublespeak yesterday as Gillard Government functionaries came out in force to promote their leader’s “problem gambling policy”.

Andrew Wilkie and Julia GillardThey all denied Andrew Wilkie had been stabbed in the back.

“We don’t have the numbers to deliver the package he has asked for,” said Health Minister Plibersek, overlooking the inconvenient truth that Gillard signed up to the policy in exchange for Wilkie backing her into government.

Communications Minister Conroy confusingly explained it thus: “It’s a minority government – it wasn’t about promising something we couldn’t keep.”

Of course not. Black is white.

What’s more, Gillard is the great reformer, an achiever par excellence.

“This is a Prime Minister who gets the job done,” said Finance Minister Penny Wong, “And she can be trusted to get the job done.”

The job she’s getting done ditches mandatory pre-commitment for poker machine players in favour of a year-long trial in the ACT from February 2013, a period that takes in the next election. The job will have to be finished by the government elected at that time.

Gillard’s plan proposes that all new poker machines manufactured from next year must be capable of supporting pre-commitment, so that it can be implemented if the trial results show that it works.

But we all know that Gillard killed off pre-commitment on the weekend. Is there anyone who doesn’t believe the job she’s supposedly getting done will be abandoned the moment a coalition government takes office?

Is there anyone who seriously believes this is an honest attempt to tackle problem gambling and not an expedient exercise in placating the powerful clubs industry, especially in New South Wales and Queensland?

At any other time, the package announced on the weekend would be hailed as worthwhile progress. The measures include electronic warnings, ATM withdrawal limits, money for financial counselling services, a crackdown on online sports betting, and banning live odds during sports coverage.

Families and Communities Services Minister Jenny Macklin sees all this as the result of “evidence-based” policy-making, a particularly favoured buzz phrase these days. She said her department had been working on the measures for some time, long before Wilkie burst onto the scene. Moreover, the trial of pre-commitment technology had been recommended by the Productivity Commission in a report requested by the government back in 2008.

Macklin’s argument, valid as it undoubtedly is, invites the observation that this government is singularly unable to prosecute its decisions and fight for ownership of its commitments in the public arena.

In this particular bout, the knockout punch has been pulled and the pre-commitment fight has been well and truly fixed. An alternative plan for a one dollar bet limit didn’t even make it into the ring.

And the Government is utterly disingenuous about what’s really going on.

Clubs Australia has got its way again. Gillard has caved into its pressure just as surely as she rolled over for the mining industry when she watered down the mining tax.

She has also caved into pressure from nervous members of the ALP caucus. As in so many other areas, the Government is incapable of fighting back in support of its policy positions. They prefer appeasement.

Hovering over it all is the fear Gillard and her backers have that Kevin Rudd is picking up support from backbenchers fearful of electoral annihilation a short twenty months – or sooner – from now.

Such is this so-called progressive and reformist Labor Government that Gillard wouldn’t even follow through on her written agreement with Wilkie and put the proposal to an up or down vote in the House. The numbers aren’t there, she says, but Wilkie demurs.

Still, Gillard proclaimed her watered-down plans on the weekend as a “big reform”. It was the triumph of something over nothing, a victory for a government coping with the exigencies of a hung parliament. Her supporters argued it was better to get 80 per cent of something than 100 per cent of nothing.

Gillard’s words conjured simultaneous pragmatism and principled reform: “I believe we will get this legislation through the Parliament… To not take this approach means that you don’t get change and not getting change is too big a risk… You do have to make compromises, that’s the nature of politics.”

Spoken like a true fixer.

Parliamentary secretary Mike Kelly, the member for Eden-Monaro, home to a goodly number of clubs and poker machines, epitomised the delusion when he said: “This is one of the best crafted pieces of public policy that I’ve ever seen.”

The doublespeak did not allow for any admission of policy capitulation. It did not concede a stab in the back for Wilkie or acknowledge the spotlight on Gillard’s Achilles’ heel, the perception of her as a careerist, an operator, not altogether trustworthy and a tad treacherous.

Even so, let us offer some sympathy for the position Gillard found herself in.

Andrew Wilkie, the ONA intelligence analyst turned whistleblower, has taken himself overly seriously. The former Green turned independent not only demanded that Gillard introduce legislation for mandatory pre-commitment but pledged himself to withdrawing support if the legislation failed to pass. Brinkmanship indeed.

Wilkie found himself a rookie MP delivered a share in the balance of power. He struck out on his own and now finds himself sidelined. Courtesy of the Government’s deal with Peter Slipper, Wilkie has been cast adrift. The Government reportedly saw him as a political suicide bomber. When the opportunity arose, they preferred to deal with a Queensland mercenary instead.

But Wilkie remains pure. He can claim to have held firm to his principles. Indeed, despite Gillard reneging on her agreement with him, he will support her gambling reforms anyway. In the absence of government malfeasance, he is unlikely to support a no-confidence motion.

Wilkie may have fallen victim to political grandiosity but he also exemplifies qualities the electorate is yearning for in its leaders. The evening news bulletins announced “another broken promise” on Saturday night and there it was in a nutshell, the question of trust and conviction.

No doubt Gillard and her right-wing backers in the ALP see the weekend’s events as a victory. They have taken a difficult and distracting issue off the agenda. They will believe they have strengthened her hold on the leadership and forestalled a near-term challenge. Their faith in their political smarts will be confirmed.

It is all illusion.

There were months of silence and uncertainty that followed Gillard’s announcement of the carbon tax last February. Whilst the Multiparty Climate Change Committee met to finalise the details of the tax and its accompanying compensation arrangements, a host of opponents, not least Tony Abbott, ran amok. The supposedly smart operators in the Government allowed the debate to be stolen from under their noses.

So it has been with poker machines. Seventeen months have passed since Wilkie’s pre-commitment policy became a vital political issue. It was never an unresolved matter hanging over from the Rudd period, something to be settled in the “year of decision and delivery”. Gillard created the mess she sought to resolve on the weekend. She signed the deal with Wilkie and then gifted the cashed-up opponents of poker machine reform months of time to apply the squeeze.

As it has been with issues as diverse as climate change policy, asylum seekers, or gay marriage, Gillard’s judgment, consistency, trustfulness and conviction are brought into question by the poker machine shenanigans. She pretends strength but acts from weakness. She asserts belief but her line in the sand is ever shifting.

For an electorate that doesn’t follow every twist and turn of daily politics, and which doesn’t give a damn for Gillard or Wilkie, the gambling fracas is just as likely to confirm their intention to destroy every last vestige of the hung parliament when they ultimately get the chance to vote.

Sadly, for people who dread the prospect of an Abbott government, they now have another issue to add to the list of ill-conceived or poorly executed policies, another reason to lament the lack of political fortitude, and another reason to believe that the government they dearly want to support is led by a dud.

This article was first published on The Drum.

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