When Julia Gillard ditched Andrew Wilkie for Peter Slipper in order to abandon serious poker machine reform, it was Craig Thomson who came out with this opinion piece in The Daily Telegraph celebrating a victory for the pubs and clubs.

Fast forward four months and Gillard’s stocks have plunged from bad to worse. Breaking the pokies promise reinforced the PM’s untrustworthiness and Wilkie went on to vote with the opposition on the question of suspending Thomson from parliament.

It was this move — along with pressure from the other independents — which forced Thomson’s hand yesterday and today we’ve now even got The Australian Financial Review joining News Ltd papers in editorialising in favour of an early election.

Amid this political circus, the push for serious pokies reform has not stopped, as can be seen in this provocative GetUp! ad attacking Woolworths, which Channels Seven, Nine and Ten refused to run last week. Indeed, there is gathering momentum around the Productivity Commission’s recommendation of $1 maximum bets, something Gillard refused to embrace in the original negotiations with Wilkie.

When representatives from 63 of Victoria’s 79 councils gathered at the Sofitel Hotel last Thursday for the state council meeting of the Municipal Association of Victoria, there wasn’t a single speaker against this opening motion:


That the MAV advocate to the Minister for Gaming:

(1)    To amend the Gambling Regulation Act 2003 to:

a) Require decision-makers at the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation to consider the social and economic impacts of increasing densities of EGMs in vulnerable communities at the local level or Census Collector District level;

b) Require community benefits to be genuine (i.e. to benefit those at most risk of harm from EGM gambling) and require the applicant to prove that there is positive community benefit if increasing the number of EGMs (as opposed to the current “will not be detrimental” test);

c) Prohibit applications for new or increased numbers of EGMs in communities with below average SEIFA scores where the EGM density is currently above or will become above the state average.

(2) To adopt the following recommendations from the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report on Gambling:

a) Lower the bet limit to $1 per “button push”.

b) Make shutdown periods for electronic gaming machines (EGMs) commence earlier and be of longer duration.

c) Require better warnings and prominent information in venues.

The resolution received a thumping majority as Victorian councillors from across the political divide were united in their support for poker machine reforms, which have now been dis-owned by Tony Abbott and Gillard.

Indeed, even the blue-blood councillors at Boroondara, based on Robert Menzies’ old seat of Kooyong, this month passed a motion calling for maximum $1 bets. Check out page seven of the minutes that disclose that the councillors even supported an investigation of “differential rates” on pokies venues.

Boroondara takes in the state seat of Hawthorn, held by Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu, and Kooyong is currently held federally by Josh Freudenberg, who distinguished himself last year by running interference for the Liberals on the Wilkie-chaired parliamentary committee into pokies reform.

Abbott assigned the job of undermining pokies reform to Freudenberg and fellow Liberal committee member Steve Ciobo, whose seat takes in Jupiters Casino on the Gold Coast. You can see an example of their work through this February 2011 column in The AFR attacking mandatory precommitment.

So what does Frydenberg think about $1 maximum bets now that his local Boroondara councillors have adopted it?

The same goes for Gillard’s great backer, Simon Crean. When Crean eventually retires, he is expected to be replaced by lawyer and former MAV president Geoff Lake, who has long controlled the numbers at the City of Monash, which takes in part of Crean’s federal seat of Hotham.

However, the City of Monash has one of Victoria’s highest intensities of poker machines and last month the council followed the lead of Moreland, Darebin and Manningham in slugging its pokies venues with double rates to pay for mitigation programs. Monash mayor Stefanie Perri even featured on 7.30 Victoria last Friday night.

Lo and behold, the Herald Sun had a story yesterday quoting state Labor and Liberal sources suggesting there may be legislation to bring an end to special rates by councils.

Such a move would fly in the face of an explicit commitment made by the Liberals in opposition when they said rate setting was a question for councils.

Look no further than this article in The Age which quoted Ted Baillieu’s current gaming minister as follows just a few days before the 2010 election:

“The Coalition’s gambling spokesman Michael O’Brien ruled out overriding councils.

“‘The setting of rates should be a matter for Moreland rather than the state government, we have no intention of interfering in the setting of rates,’ he said.

It’s one thing to oppose Wilkie, but surely the Victorian Liberals wouldn’t wilt to pokies industry pressure and break an explicit promise along the way.

As for Gillard, one option for salvaging something from the wreckage of her leadership would be to dispatch Slipper to the crossbenches and embrace serious pokies reform.

After all, why should federal Labor care now that it is conservative state governments in Victoria, NSW and Queensland who will suffer the biggest budget hit from reducing the $12 billion a year Australian lose playing state-run poker machines?

*Disclosure: Stephen Mayne is a councillor in the City of Manningham, which has approved a double rate on pokies venues for 2012-13. He was not paid for this item.