Clubs NSW, the Australian Hotels Association, James Packer, Karl Bitar, John Singleton and the fast-dwindling NSW Right of the Labor Party have been the key players in the campaign to oppose Andrew Wilkie’s pokies reform agenda.

This cabal of aggressive Sydney operatives have found themselves in a pitched battle against various players from outside NSW, led by Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie, South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon, Melbourne-based Tim Costello and’s Paul Bendat, the son of Perth-based BRW Rich Lister Jack Bendat.

It was Victoria’s former Labor Gaming Minister Tony Robinson who nailed the NSW culture in November 2010 with the following comments at a pokies election forum:

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“If you believe in national standards, and we do in Victoria, we’ve been at the forefront. We’re out there on pre-commitment well before that agreement was signed by the federal government. There is one big problem. Three words – New South Wales. Home to half the country’s poker machines. A state where you get no dialogue, you don’t get meetings like this. A state where the industry has the arrogance to go up to the opposition leader, who might be Premier one day soon, and sign a tax-reduction agreement for pokies in NSW. We all have some work to do on NSW. They are years and years and year behind us here in Victoria.”

The embedded pokies culture in NSW sees people such as 2GB breakfast presenter Alan Jones, employed by pokies owner John Singleton, brazenly ignore the obvious conflict of interest and rail hysterically against pokies reform.

It also saw Channel Nine rugby league commentators read out anti-reform scripts during prime time broadcasts, something ACMA is now investigating.

The Daily Telegraph has also produced several shamelessly distorted pieces pushing the Clubs NSW line, prompting some much-deserved cuffings from Media Watch. As all this unfolded, it was usually people based outside NSW who pointed out the obvious flaws, distortions and vested interests that were at play.

All of this makes today’s launch of the new “Stop the Loss” Coalition in Sydney’s Martin Place a significant development. It’s the first time a serious Sydney push to the reform campaign has emerged and the key players have been GetUp!, The Australia Institute, various church groups, PR queen Sue Cato and Neil Lawrence, the advertising man behind Kevin07.

All of sudden there is counter-ads and Sydney-based resources taking on the pokies lobby. One million pro-reform flyers will be distributed across marginal seats in Australia.

Cato and Lawrence are acting pro-bono but there is obviously some serious money committed, which is presumably coming in part from GetUp! members who have surprised the activist group with their passion and generosity on pokies reform.

Former Melbourne-based Today Tonight reporter Rohan Wenn is an interesting connection between some of the players. Wenn spent the past three years as Nick Xenophon’s chief adviser and was heavily involved in bringing GetUp! operatives to the 2011 Woolworths AGM in Sydney, as can be seen in this video from the meeting.

Lo and behold, Wenn has now left the frenetic Xenophon office and landed a gig as campaigns director at GetUp! where his first major task has clearly involved working with Cato and Lawrence on today’s Sydney launch. Cato called after reading yesterday’s Crikey piece on the pokies and claimed she and Lawrence had been overwhelmed with offers of pro-bono assistance to take on the pokies lobby.

As a prominent and well-connected Liberal, Cato realises her biggest challenge is getting Coalition politicians publicly on board.

Despite being told by Gillard and Jenny Macklin that the numbers aren’t there, Andrew Wilkie is insisting that this be tested on the floor of Parliament in the next four months as stipulated in the September 2010 agreement. There are numerous Coalition MPs who want reform and, tellingly, Tony Abbott has never ruled out supporting Wilkie and Xenophon’s preferred option of $1 maximum bets.

The press coverage on pokies reform politics was very insightful today. It almost appears that The Australian’s lampooning of Wilkie for apparent weakness has galvanised his resolve and the Murdoch tabloids were given the exclusive that he was withdrawing support for means testing private health insurance rebates.

There goes the just relaunched media campaign by the telegenic new Health Minister Tanya Plibersek, who has received the very loud message from Wilkie that there are plenty of points in between being a solid vote for the government and supporting a no confidence motion to bring down the government.

Julia Gillard and responsible minister Jenny Macklin, the two Victorian ladies of the Left, seemed genuinely committed to pokies reform before this week’s confusing antics. After shafting factional colleague Kim Carr in the recent cabinet reshuffle, it would be interesting to know where former speaker, and yet another Victoria Left faction member, Harry Jenkins, sits on the Gillard pokies reform tactics.

After all, before standing aside for Peter Slipper, speaker Jenkins went public in The Age last October declaring his passion for pokies reform. Anything could happen in this incredibly fluid and unique federal Parliament. Xenophon’s continuing message to all concerned in Canberra is “don’t under-estimate Andrew Wilkie”. The mercurial former Defence whistleblower even sought a meeting with Tony Abbott this week.

Stranger things have happened but with Gillard increasingly on the nose and headed for a landslide defeat, don’t be surprised if we see some discussion about a return of Jenkins to the speaker’s chair with Abbott moving into The Lodge promising $1 maximum bets.

Faced with such a prospect, Gillard appears more likely to stare down those NSW Right MPs captured by the pokies lobby and introduce her pokies legislation as promised in writing when Andrew Wilkie put her into The Lodge.

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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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