Sometimes in politics, less is more.

Andrew Wilkie refused to give media interviews yesterday and instead directly engaged with Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff and government ministers on the question of resurrecting meaningful pokies reform. The result: a truckload of coverage in today’s media with pokies reform again front and centre in the political debate.

Julia Gillard’s calculated decision last December to trade her allegiance with Andrew Wilkie for a sordid pact with Peter Slipper is arguably the biggest mistake she has made as Prime Minister. And it can’t be blamed on bad luck or bad staff.

As factional strongman Stephen Conroy blurted out during the Kevin Rudd leadership challenge, Gillard was concerned that Rudd was building numbers by promising NSW and Queensland MPs that he would ditch pokies reform. This is what Conroy told AM on February 23:

STEPHEN CONROY: Well let’s be very clear about this. What’s been revealed last night on television and over the weekend with Andrew Wilkie is a complete and utter fraud by Kevin Rudd. He has been pretending that he supported the pre-commitment technology, pretending he supported reform in this area, but his key numbers man just happened to have two meetings and tell Clubs Australia that he would kill it. And we all know last year, late last year Kevin Rudd’s supporters …

TONY EASTLEY: But if I can bring you back, Alan Griffin denies that.

STEPHEN CONROY: Yeah well you’d have to believe in Santa Claus that a Victorian backbencher who happens to be Kevin Rudd’s key numbers man happens to suddenly take an interest. I mean Clubs Australia have been absolutely clear that they believe what everybody else in the caucus was being told. Kevin Rudd’s supporters — just go back and check the record — Kevin Rudd’s supporters were walking around caucus saying “look, dump Wilkie, I’ll make this go away. Kevin doesn’t need Andrew Wilkie in Parliament. He can get Bob Katter”.

The Australian public needs to know what’s been going on here. And this has been a long fuse, you’ve all heard that phrase they’ve been using, the Rudd supporters, this is a long fuse to destabilise the Prime Minister.

As we now know, the destabilisation all ended with Gillard’s crushing 71-31 defeat of Kevin Rudd. Such was the belting dished out, Gillard could quite easily ditch Slipper and embrace meaningful pokies reform again without the risk of being knocked off by her chief rival.

Given the public’s hatred of political rorting — plus homophobic elements in Labor’s blue-collar case and the importance of taking s-xual abuse claims seriously — it is simply not viable for Gillard to remain in partnership with Slipper, who is copping the full symphony from the Murdoch media machine.

All Slipper does is make Gillard look untrustworthy and unethical. And this is precisely what the public thought when she ditched Wilkie, turning her back on some of the most vulnerable people — pokies addicts and their families — in the community.

What Gillard underestimated was the strength of the language that Wilkie would use in tearing up his agreement — especially the focus on trust.

She also underestimated the level of community support for pokies reform, something re-affirmed today by research released by the Stop The Loss Coalition, which involves everyone from Tim Costello to Neil Lawrence, Sue Cato, Paul Bendat and, of course, Nick Xenophon.

Despite considerable support in Coalition ranks, including from Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott’ chief-of-staff Peta Credlin again rejected the idea of embracing $1 maximum bets during her meeting with Wilkie yesterday. This was a strange decision given Abbott will need the vote of Slipper and Wilkie to trigger an early election.

First, Abbott needs to get Slipper to resign as speaker or be sacked by the parliament, something that can happen immediately with a majority vote on the floor of the house. If Labor votes against such a measure but the independents and Coalition push it through, it’s a fair bet that Slipper will sit on the crossbenches and prop up the Gillard government. Under these circumstances, the parliament will probably go full term.

Therefore, Abbott needs Gillard herself to engineer the Slipper departure — but she can only do this and stay in government by re-aligning with Wilkie.

Faced with a choice of $1 pokies bets or the stench of Slipper, surely a principled position tackling the world record $12 billion a year in pokies loss is the way to go. After all, who wants to end up looking like Anna Bligh?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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