Gillard gambles on pokie backdown

On the door of King Charles II's bedchamber, the Earl of Rochester, a notable wit, once pinned a note. It read:

"Here lies our sovereign lord, the King

Whose word no man relies on;

He never says a foolish thing

Nor ever does a wise one."

Unfortunately the noble earl expired in 1680, or we could ask him to pen a similar missive for Julia Gillard. Like the merry monarch, she can tell a good story, but the implementation of it is frankly lamentable.

Keeping her promise to Andrew Wilkie to legislate for pre-commitment for poker machine players was always going to be a problem, but it could have been handled much better, starting much earlier. Instead, she left her backdown so late that there was no time to produce genuine alternative reforms which would have proved to Wilkie, and much more importantly to the mass of voters, that she was serious about the issue. Now she is left looking, once again, tricky and deceitful.

The headlines from last week said it all. Where The Sydney Morning Herald announced: "Gillard retreats on pokie reforms," implying a forced withdrawal from a course of action to which she was committed, The Australian ran: "Gillard prevails in pokies stand-off." The insinuation was that Gillard had never intended to fulfil her promise; now she had called Wilkie's bluff and won.

But in any case she hadn't. Wilkie went ahead and withdrew his support, and while he is unlikely to be in a rush to install Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, Gillard can no longer rely on his vote to pass her legislation. He has already signalled that he is reconsidering his support for the government's bill to means test the health insurance rebate, which the government considers vital for both fiscal and social reasons, and more pay back is likely.

And it needn't have been thus. Gillard's excuse for ditching her commitment was that the numbers in the House of Representatives simply weren't there - the bill would not have been passed, so there was no point in introducing it. But Wilkie avers that he could still get the numbers; presumably he was relying on bringing over the Independent National Tony Crook, who does not have to worry about a backlash from the clubs; in his home state of Western Australia pokies are banned from clubs and pubs and so are not an issue

(Incidentally, can the propagandists of Clubs Australia explain how the state can exist without pokies? How it maintains a thriving club scene, sporting teams flourish, and communities prosper? No? Can it be that they have been telling the rest of us great big lies? But of course; they always have and always will. They call it being Australian.)

It would have done Gillard no harm to test Wilkie's claim by bringing the bill in for a vote - to really call his bluff. If he was wrong, he would have been forced to back off. By not doing so Gillard reinforced the impression that she did not want to risk the bill actually passing. Certainly she showed no enthusiasm for a fight; when the miners unleashed their advertising against the super profits tax, the government fought back with a campaign of its own. Against Clubs Australia's far more vulnerable tirades, Gillard maintained a stubborn silence, leaving it to GetUp! to mount a reply, which proved to be too little and too late.

And when Gillard formally announced her backdown, she treated the whole idea of reform almost with contempt. A $250 withdrawal limit on ATMs in pubs and clubs - big deal. New poker machines to be mandatory-commitment compatible - in the unlikely event any government were to reconsider the measure. And a trial of mandatory commitment in the ACT: not a bad idea, but why so late? If it was so desirable, why not run it this year instead of next, and so leave time to act on the results before the next election?

And of course there were other genuine measures which could and should have been taken. The numbers may or may not have been there for mandatory commitment, but they were certainly there for maximum one dollar bets. Too expensive said Gillard. Too expensive for whom? Surely not for the clubs?

And how about a spot of simple de-glamorising? The government has legislated for plain packaging of cigarettes. It would be easy enough to insist that the clubs strip the bells and whistles and flashing lights off the pokies, replacing them with a sober, or even downright unattractive, product - and one which does not give the occasional free turn, which some addicts have claimed is the greatest turn on of all.

But the clubs have ruled out all of the above and indeed any reform at all which could affect their revenues. And that, it would appear, is all it took for Gillard to rule them out too. Fighting the good fight, even with the enthusiastic aid of community organisations such as GetUp! the moral authority of Tim Costello and most of the churches and the pro bono skills of major advertising and marketing guns such as Neil Lawrence and Sue Cato, was just too hard.

And even widespread public support did not beat the club money.

The polls, even in the New South Wales and Queensland marginals most keenly targetted by Clubs Australia, still showed a majority of voters in favour of reform and even of Wilkie's proposed measures. And anyway, the experts, led by the Nielsen pollster John Stirton, do not regard the issue as a vote changer. So why is Gillard running away?

At the very least, it is to be hoped that the SMH was right; that it is a retreat, not a complete rout. Because the signal it sends is that from now on, any well-heeled pressure group can call the shots. At the first whiff of grapeshot, the government will capitulate. And the electorate will not, and should not, put up with such cowardice from the captain and the crew.

The carbon tax showed that Gillard could play tough when she wanted to, but her behaviour over the last week has been that of a leader who lacks guts or integrity or both. She desperately needs to stop sounding smart and start acting wise. And soon.

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