From the agreement between the Prime Minister and Andrew Wilkie, September 2, 1010:

The government … further commits to the following additional measures:

a) Implementing a best practice full pre-commitment scheme — that is uniform across all States and Territories and machines — consistent with recommendations and findings of the Productivity Commission. Implementation of pre-commitment arrangements will commence in 2012, with the full pre-commitment scheme commencing in 2014, with States and Territories to achieve this outcome …

If required, the government will support Commonwealth legislation through the Parliament by budget 2012.

Well, that’s not going to happen, despite the government’s “commitment” to Andrew Wilkie. At best it seems he’ll get a trial, in Canberra and Queanbeyan, assuming the ACT’s problem gamblers don’t drive over to Yass or up to Goulburn to throw their money away. Tony Abbott might have a problem with anything not written down, but the government, apparently, can’t even stick to what it has written down.

In policy terms, abandoning a rush into mandatory pre-commitment in favour of a serious trial is actually a good outcome: pre-commitment is an intrusive, unjustified interference with individuals’ rights, so the very least a government can do is test whether it will work before imposing it. And it enables Labor to end the frequently hysterical campaign being run against it by the hospitality industry that would have made the next election even more difficult than it already will be.

It also takes pressure off Wilkie, who no longer has the dilemma of determining whether, as he insisted he would, bring down the government in the event it tried, and failed, to get mandatory pre-commitment through the Parliament and tapped the mat on the issue. Instead, he’s tapped the mat, recognising that Peter Slipper has significantly reduced his bargaining power.

Still, I wouldn’t like to be Labor in the event Craig Thomson, or another MP in a marginal seat, falls under a bus and hands the Coalition an extra number, putting Wilkie’s support back in play. Having welched on its previous deal with him, Labor might find him reluctant to be made a fool of twice. It has now left Wilkie in the difficult position of explaining his own shift. He won’t forget in a hurry, if ever.

And then there’s Julia Gillard’s reputational problem — the perception that promises and commitments don’t matter to her if they get in the way of her political interests. It was a killer in relation to the carbon pricing package and abandoning her deal with Wilkie simply reinforces voters’ perceptions about her lack of trustworthiness — bearing in mind, of course, that at last count two-thirds of voters supported mandatory pre-commitment.

You could call it political ruthlessness, which it is. But it also looks a bit like yet another half-smart political play that this government excels at — moves that at first blush look clever politics, but eventually yield a host of problems. It might be the right political move in the short-term, but there are some serious longer-term risks.

The Gillard government may be lucky if this doesn’t come back and bite it.

Peter Fray

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