Gillard's pokies betrayal cuts both ways

Labor's betrayal of Andrew Wilkie is deeply shameful, but it's not quite as cut and dried as many have argued.

What are we to make of the Gillard government's refusal to put Andrew Wilkie's anti-problem-gambling plans before the parliament? Reaction from the commentariat has been swift and damning, and to join that fray was my own first instinct.

Labor had promised Wilkie, quite clearly, that it would legislate a mandatory precommitment scheme for poker machines. And, just as clearly, it broke that promise by refusing even to test his assertion that, at an actual vote, enough support would emerge to secure victory.

Wilkie was most likely wrong about this, but now we'll never know.

I asked WA Liberal MP Mal Washer, who had defied his party under the Howard government to cross the floor on the issues of tobacco-company political donations and therapeutic cloning, if he'd think about supporting Wilkie's problem gambling plans.

The former GP said he'd often seen the effects of gambling during his medical career, and was deeply concerned about the issue – particularly in light of the insidious spread of online gambling. However, in Washer's home state there are no poker machines beyond the Perth casino, and he therefore planned to "leave this one to the eastern states people to sort out".

WA independent Tony Crook might have been swayed, though it seems he hadn't heard from Labor's numbers people for a couple of weeks. And Labor, in this instance, couldn't find any horses to trade with Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to change their minds.

So it's an open-and-shut betrayal of Wilkie, who in the 2010 negotiations to form minority government near-enough had 'problem gambling reform' tattooed to his forehead. Julia Gillard smiled and shook his hand, but behind all the pleasantries seems to have been thinking "while there's a gun to my head this deal means something".

The gun was lowered when Peter Slipper took the Speaker's chair. The smile faded and the hand was withdrawn.

Shame, Labor. Shame.

And yet there is another, overlooked dimension to this simple tale of morality. It's so big, it's hard to see.

Casting our minds back to the August 2010 election, what gambling reform policy did Julia Gillard push to the front of the Labor platform? Err, none. It was a policy cobbled together in the 17 days of interregnum because at the time it was more important to Andrew Wilkie even than the billion dollars Tony Abbott conjured out of thin air to promise the Member for Denison a new hospital in Hobart.

And what kind of multi-billion dollar package of additional regional assistance did Gillard take to the election? Err, that was post-election too. A $10 billion boost to regional development funding was cobbled together to get Windsor, Oakeshott and (Labor thought at the time) Bob Katter over the line. For Katter it wasn't enough, but for the other two it did the trick.

And let me see. What was the other deal struck in those heady weeks to build a cross-bench bulwark against the surging sea of freshly elected Coalition members?

Oh yes, the carbon tax. That was the biggie. Because in addition to securing the support of Adam Bandt in the lower house, it delivered Labor a workable relationship with the nine-strong team of Greens now holding the balance of power in the Senate.

And unless I've been reading the papers upside down for the past year, I could have sworn that the hue and cry from the Coalition, and from many media commentators, has been "break your promise to the Greens! Scrap the tax!"

Labor was in no position to do that and it is a miracle of negotiating skill that it kept the three-year fixed-price phase of its ETS scheme to $23 – yes, that's high, but it could have been so much higher.

And so the betrayal of Andrew Wilkie is not quite as cut and dried as many have argued. It is effectively a cynical and deceitful burying of a policy Labor did not take to the election.

But all the while a jostling crowd of the great and good in Australia have been practically standing on each other's shoulders to urge Labor to break its promise to the Greens and, thereby, abandon finally the ETS plan it did put to the Australian electorate at two general elections – a policy that had been a cornerstone of the Labor platform since 2007.

Julia Gillard has done a shameful thing by breaking her promise to Andrew Wilkie. But she is not the only hypocrite in Australia today.


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