After a four-hour debate in the Victorian upper house yesterday, the two major parties united shortly after 6pm to push through legislation that will lock in $70 billion in poker machine losses through until 2042.
Back in Melbourne, after a flying visit to Manus Island, Tim Costello, Australia’s longest-serving campaigner for gambling reform, sat in the public gallery steaming, along side Anna Bardsley and Carmel Harty, two women with a lived experience of poker machine harm.
As the division was completed and it was clear the two big parties were refusing all amendments and calls for delay, Costello stood up and let fly, declaring the big party MPs should be ashamed of themselves. He was promptly ejected from the chamber by security.
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Anna and Carmel then bravely followed suit, voicing their disgust from the public gallery.
As Carmel was walking out, one particularly disrespectful MP was heard to say: “let the addicted ones go home”.
Carmel duly returned to the gallery and shouted at the startled MPs: “I’m not the one who was addicted, it was my sister, which ended in suicide. You all should be so ashamed of yourselves after today stopping the amendments that were so needed.”
A number of MPs from both sides later apologised for some of the language used about victims and were clearly uncomfortable about being forced to tow the party line for the pokies industry. A conscience vote would have produced a very different outcome.
Given that the existing Victorian 10-year pokies licences don’t expire until August 2022, The Alliance for Gambling Reform had formally requested all the political parties delay the legislation until 2018, so that significant amendments, such as those outlined by Reason Party MP Fiona Patten, to 3AW’s Neil Mitchell, could be debated and implemented.
Interestingly, when Fiona Patten put up her proposal yesterday calling for a committee of inquiry that would report back in March next year, the 28-votes-to-10 defeat was unprecedented.
Never before in this Victorian Parliament had the entire crossbench of Greens, independents, Shooters, DLP and the Reason Party been united against the two major parties.
The Greens, flushed by their success against Labor in the Northcote by-election, vigorously opposed the bill, peppering Labor with detailed questions from Colleen Hartland and new leader Samantha Ratnam for much of the afternoon.
Fiona Patten did the same, after also penning this strong opinion piece in the Herald Sun, which appeared just hours before the upper house debate began.
Given the harm caused by the pokies industry in the Labor heartland — as former Victorian premier John Cain outlines in this video — it remains puzzling why Labor in particular doesn’t treat it like the tobacco or banking industries.
The connection with family violence is the other obvious contradiction.
After the tragic death of Luke Batty, Daniel Andrews led the charge nationally on family violence promising a royal commission from opposition in 2014.
Yet when the alliance wrote to all Victorian MPs on Tuesday calling on the parliament not to legislate on poker machines during the current global 16 days of activism for the elimination of violence against women, the response was instead to bring on the upper house pokies debate earlier than expected.
It is also worth noting that the Labor Party, which owns and operates 800 pokies in Sydney and Canberra, did not produce a gambling policy from opposition going into the 2014 Victorian election, so it had no mandate to advance these new 20-year licences 1700 days before the current licences expire.
Premier Daniel Andrews is a former gambling minister, who held his 2014 election night event in a pokies venue. He is yet to make any public comment on the legislation, including the decision to rush the legislation through before Christmas. Tim Costello prevailed upon Labor’s upper house leader Gavin Jennings to delay the bill yesterday afternoon and, after a short break in proceedings, he returned to say the government was pushing ahead, knowing that the opposition was also on board.
The upper house debate was led by Labor’s Small Business Minister Philip Dalidakis. Some of the language he used during yesterday’s grilling was extraordinary, including blaming victims for choosing to visit Victoria’s 500 pokies venues. The Hansard is well worth a read.
In response to a question on notice from Fiona Patten, Dalidakis claimed in a written response tabled in parliament that the rush was required to “alleviate the commercial challenges for gaming businesses and strengthen their ability to plan and invest for the future”.
Meanwhile, over in Tasmania, the Labor Party is seriously considering going to next year’s election with a policy of removing all pokies from pubs and clubs, leaving just the Federal Group’s Hobart and Launceston casino’s offering the addictive product to patrons.
The contrast with the “business as usual” approach from Victorian Labor is stark indeed.
*Stephen Mayne is the part-time communications adviser for The Alliance for Gambling Reform and was not paid for this item.