The Sunday Age certainly attracted the intention of the Insiders couch potatoes yesterday with its front-page report that Andrew Wilkie was threatening to potentially vote in favour of a Coalition no-confidence motion if Julia Gillard didn’t deliver on her pokies promises. Wilkie later came out and downplayed the story but it has focused attention on just how hard the $10 billion-a-year pokies industry will fight to prevent the push for a system of mandatory pre-commitment for gamblers. Woolworths and its colourful billionaire joint venture partner Bruce Mathieson are the biggest pokies venue operator in Australia with 12,000 machines. The company has made it absolutely clear to all 420,000 Woolworths shareholders that it won’t be having a bar of the Wilkie proposal. How do we know that? Well, I nominated for the board at last week’s Woolworths AGM on a published platform that read as follows:
Mr Mayne has stated that he is standing on a platform that Woolworths divests its gambling interests or, in the alternative, publicly pledge to implement a system of compulsory, non-transferable and binding pre-commitment for gamblers.
The pre-commitment element is what Wilkie and Prime Minister Gillard have agreed to in paragraph 7.5 of their agreement, which reads as follows:
"Implementing a best practice full pre-commitment scheme -- that is uniform across all States and Territories and machines -- consistent with recommendations and finding of the Productivity Commission. Implementation of pre-commitment arrangements will commence in 2012, with the full pre-commitment scheme commencing in 2014, working with States and Territories to achieve this outcome. The full pre-commitment scheme will include the use of technology that is expected to have the best chance of reducing problem gambling."
Contrast that with this line from the Woolies board in the explanatory memorandum to the notice of meeting,  which urges shareholders to vote against the external candidate at the AGM on the following grounds:
"The directors do not in any way endorse the platform on which Mr Mayne is standing. In particular, the Directors note that the Company’s Hotels business has developed and published a Hotel and Gaming Charter which addresses, amongst other things, voluntary pre-commitment for gaming."
There is a massive difference between voluntary and compulsory pre-commitment. If Gillard can’t get Woolies, Clubs NSW and the states over the line on a compulsory system then Wilkie will withdraw his support for the government. It’s as simple as that. Despite some detailed exchanges about gambling and Mathieson at the Woolies AGM, the mainstream media gave it a wide berth, with the exception being this piece in The Courier Mail which included the following:
Chief executive Michael Luscombe, speaking after the company's annual shareholder meeting in Brisbane yesterday, said it had no plans to exit the poker machines business. Mr Luscombe said the company planned to introduce a policy to help reduce problem gambling, but he could not immediately name the measure. A press aide had to step in to describe the voluntary pre-commitment policy, under which gamblers can choose to set limits for betting amounts.
That press aide was presumably chief Woolworths spin doctor Andrew Hall who, in a previous life, spent five years as federal director of the National Party, as The Australian reported when he quit to join the retailing giant in 2007. The pokies debate is also expected to hot up in the final week of the Victorian election campaign, with gaming minister Tony Robinson agreeing to front a two-hour forum tomorrow morning, which has been pushed by Tim Costello, Nick Xenophon and others in this video. Education minister Bronwyn Pike, who before landing a cabinet post was a vociferous campaigner against the pokies, was also confronted over the pokies at 1am on Sunday during Headley Gritter’s The Party Show on community radio station RRR. Have a listen to the audio. Pike claimed that she "hates" problem gambling, remains "very concerned" about its impact and also confessed that "there are still further things that need to happen". It will be interesting to see if Tony Robinson has anything meaningful to announce at tomorrow’s pokies forum as he also battles to hang on to his ultra-marginal seat of Mitcham. *Stephen Mayne is standing as a "no pokies" independent in the Northern Metropolitan upper house region.