When you don’t really believe in very much, you tend to see most policy issues as, first and foremost, political issues, requiring political solutions. That’s how the Rudd government viewed climate change, and why it blundered into the catastrophic decision to walk away from the CPRS. Viewing issues through a political prism foreshortens your view, making you inclined to mistake the tactical for the strategic, to emphasise short-term management over longer-term planning.
Dealing with problem gambling wasn’t even Labor’s issue to begin with; it only adopted it as one as the price for securing the support of Andrew Wilkie. It was always a political issue for Labor, and now the government has crafted a political solution, albeit a little of the half-baked variety – the ACT trial of mandatory pre-commitment doesn’t even sound like it’s been bedded down properly.
The Gillard defence, of course, is to blame the parliament: she can’t get support for what might be called the Full Wilkie, so she’s going for what she can get.
That was her excuse for reversing her position on a carbon price, you’ll recall: being in a minority government necessitated her altering her position on the timetable for a carbon price to that wanted by the Greens.
Now she’s invoking the same excuse, but not to reverse a position adopted before the election of a hung parliament, but one adopted after it, when her inability to secure automatic passage of legislation was plain.
In political terms, apparently it shores up her leadership, because so many backbenchers are concerned about the impact of the hospitality industry, and gives Labor 'clear air' to prosecute its own agenda this year of economic management and bedding in the carbon price from mid-year.
In policy terms it’s not a bad outcome either, assuming you see the necessity of regulating gambling still further, although it’s strange (or, "passing strange” as the prime minister likes to say) that the Productivity Commission’s recommendations around bet limits will sit on the shelf.
Except, the prime minister already has a reputation for abandoning inconvenient commitments, and her abandonment of Wilkie – in fact, for once, News Ltd’s terms such as "betrayal” aren’t unjustified – significantly strengthens it. Tony Abbott is right to zero in on Julia Gillard’s trustworthiness on the issue.
It needn’t have been this way. A bill implementing her commitment to Wilkie could have been introduced in order to test the opposition and crossbench MPs. Its failure would have been evidence of a good faith attempt to fulfil a commitment; Wilkie would have faced the difficult problem of explaining why he’d abandoned the government when it could not have done any more to keep its faith with him, and shared some of the blame of being unable to get his fellow independents over the line. The trial and delay could have been a fallback position.
Instead, she struck pre-emptively, breaching her end of the bargain, for the sake of convenience.
Wilkie says he will only vote down the government in cases of serious misconduct, which was exactly his commitment previously. Even without Peter Slipper, the government would be in no danger of falling. But expect Wilkie to make Labor’s job of getting legislation through a lot harder. Not because he’ll bring a vindictive approach to bills – he’ll continue to consider them on his merits – but because the opposition may well find him far more receptive to its amendments.
The real damage is to the prime minister, who has handed Tony Abbott further compelling evidence that she only keeps those promises that are convenient. It will also alienate and infuriate anti-gambling advocates. It might shore up her leadership within caucus but it will ensure her polling among voters won’t improve from its current abysmal levels. And as the year goes on, MPs will start paying more and more attention to those numbers.
The decision is also a shot in the arm for advertising and marketing agencies. It demonstrates that a well-designed marketing campaign against reforms broadly supported by the public and the Productivity Commission can derail them, because this government runs at the first whiff of advertising grapeshot. That’s what happens when you view everything as a political problem.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on January 23. Republished with permission.