It seems that independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s luck has run out. After winning support for his mandatory pre-commitment scheme in exchange for his vote during the hung parliament, Julia Gillard announced the policy was a loss on the weekend after it failed to get enough crossbench support.

Gillard instead unveiled her own policy to tackle problem gambling, which includes a $250 ATM withdrawal limit, machines that support pre-commitment technology and a 12-month trial of mandatory pre-commitment in the ACT starting in 2013.

An angry Wilkie says the government can’t always count on his support now and he expects a “warmer” relationship with the Opposition. Wilkie says the government will suffer from backing down on the gambling reforms. “It will be damaging for them as far as the government’s reputation, character-wise, to have failed to honour a promise,” declared Wilkie. The Greens are now calling for $1 maximum bets, which Tony Abbott immediately said he would not support.

Embattled Labor MP Craig Thomson — he of the alleged embezzled union funds used to pay prostitutes scandal — wrote an op-ed for today’s Daily Telegraph congratulating NSW Labor MPs for securing the “commonsense approach”, rather than supporting Gillard’s claim that the policy backflip was due to a lack of crossbench support.

While not entirely throwing his leader to the wolves — “the PM provided judgment and skill to course a path that is sensible and logical”, Thomson noted that to go ahead with the mandatory commitment scheme would “have flown in the face of proper policy making” and that the Gillard turnaround is “a big win for NSW Labor MPs” who fought against it.

Thomson is likely to continue his role in the spotlight. “The Coalition will home in on suggestions of political interference in the Fair Work Australia investigation into Labor MP Craig Thomson, as a possible trigger to persuade independent Andrew Wilkie to support a vote of no confidence in the government,” reports Ean Higgins in The Australian.

It’s not actually as bad for Gillard as it seems: Wilkie doesn’t want an early election and Kevin Rudd was encouraging leadership rumours over the pokies reform issue, notes Philip Coorey in The Sydney Morning Herald:

“Gillard emerges from the encounter with her unfortunate reputation as a deal breaker enhanced and the Opposition Leader armed with fresh material. But the Prime Minister has defused an issue that was tearing Labor apart and destabilising her leadership.”

But, adds Coorey, it’s not NSW Labor MPs or Tony Abbott that is the biggest winner of this policy change:

“The clear winner out of the saga is the cashed-up lobbying industry. Just as the minerals sector tore down Rudd — and almost the government — over the mining tax, the club and hotel groups, with their seemingly bottomless pit of gambling revenue, have prevailed here.”

Dr Jennifer Borrell, author of the book Understanding Problem Gambling, agrees in an op-ed in The Age:

“Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s capitulation to the powerful poker machine industry is a blow to democracy in this country. Governments are meant to represent the public interest, not be intimidated by industry campaigns against reform in marginal electorates.”

Gillard is leaving a trail of broken promises, declares Dennis Shanahan in The Australian:

“Labor starts the political year amid more accusations of betrayal, untrustworthiness, broken promises and policies without conviction. Seen from outside, it’s another politic fix and another political mess.”

Actually the Gillard government just wanted to get the focus off pokie reform and instead onto the the economy in the face of financial crisis in Europe, argues Daniel Flitton in The Age:

“Pokies reform was all anyone wanted to talk about. Would it happen or not? The debate was sapping morale, giving Tony Abbott another reason to belt Labor and made it almost impossible to send out other ”messages”, as the politicos call them, on the economy.

A backbench delegation went to Gillard before Christmas and pleaded to cut Wilkie loose.

Labor strategists then decided it was better to take another hit to the government’s credibility than keep fighting a long and likely losing battle over an issue it didn’t really have its heart in.”

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW