Gillard’s time to go double or nothing on pokies
If there’s one thing you can count on in Canberra these days, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. As the government dances along the knife edge of minority support, the balance of power seems to be shifting on a daily basis.
Such is the case with Andrew Wilkie. Only a few months ago it appeared that his influence with Labor had been dealt a serious, almost terminal blow, with the role of Speaker moving from Harry Jenkins to Peter Slipper. Indeed, it was only a short time later that Julia Gillard reneged on her agreement with Wilkie, which in turn led to him withdrawing his support for her government.
Yet here we are just a short time later, with Slipper on the cross-benches and embattled Labor MP Craig Thomson joining him. Anna Burke has stepped into the Speaker’s role temporarily, reducing her influence to that of a casting vote. And amidst all the turmoil, while allegations and sordid details are replayed endlessly in the media, Wilkie has found himself once more in a position of power.
This is no longer simply about poker machine reform. Parliament returns tomorrow and Gillard will be handing down a Federal Budget that she is counting on to turn her party’s fortunes around. Every vote will be crucial. And while Wilkie has virtually promised that he would not block supply, he hasn’t ruled out voting against any of a range of other bills that, if unsuccessful, would have a serious impact on Labor’s ability to deliver what they plan to promise.
Once again, Gillard finds herself having to choose between two seemingly untenable positions. To support Wilkie and his renewed calls for aggressive reform would mean the resumption of hostilities with a cashed-up gambling industry, Clubs Australia in particular. But to ignore his demands could mean that the budget she so desperately needs could end up seriously compromised.
It’s a shame that Gillard didn’t take a closer look at the poker machine industry all those months ago when she started listening to the campaigns and planning to back out of her deal.
There’s no doubt that by playing Wilkie along for as long as she did, she’s been gambling not only with poker machines and their impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of Australians, but also with her political fortunes… and quite possibly her political existence itself.
Had she taken a closer look, Gillard would no doubt have come across the following poker machine phenomena:
Chasing your losses. One of the reasons people get into trouble with gambling, especially on poker machines, is through chasing losses. When you’ve done your money and you decide to spend just another $20 or $50 so you can win back what you’ve lost, you’re on a slippery slope. Usually the outcome is simply an even greater loss, and when this behaviour becomes the norm the result can be devastating.
Losses disguised as wins. This is something that poker machines are renowned for. It’s what happens when you win something, but not as much as you bet in the first place. The machine makes a noise, the symbols flash and there’s a message telling you that you’ve won… yet you end up with less money than you had before you pressed the button. It’s a conditioning process, getting players used to celebrating any win at all, even when it’s actually a loss.
The house always wins. This is an ironclad certainty, and the more you play with poker machines, the more certain it gets. Everything is stacked in the machines’ favour, from the fundamental design of the games to the psychology of human nature. It’s why the poker machine industry is worth billions of dollars every year. No matter what you do, the pokies always win.
From the moment Gillard wavered on delivering on her agreement with Wilkie, she was lost. She has been playing by the industry’s rules, chasing her losses by making one decision after another to try and claw back the ground that she lost by opposing the industry in the first place.
She’s embraced compromised solutions that will do little more than ensure that Australia’s poker machines can continue to operate unimpeded; voluntary pre-commitment is the ultimate loss disguised as a win.
And by engaging with the industry, by letting them set the rules and make the play, she’s given up any chance of implementing real reforms… and that could ultimately see her lose everything. The house always, always wins.
But it’s not too late; one thing I know from my own gambling days is that it’s never too late to turn things around. It’s not easy, and there will always be consequences… but Gillard still has the chance to take her continued political existence back from the industry that has bludgeoned her into submission, just as its poker machines have to so many before her.
To give in to Wilkie’s demands would be to choose the more difficult path. We’ve already seen what lengths our clubs and pubs will go to in order to maintain the status quo, and it’s a certainty that they would resume the fight in a heartbeat. Still, what Wilkie represents is not political blackmail, but an opportunity to do things right the second time around.
Governments are elected to lead, but also to serve. With support for poker machine reforms stronger amongst the general public than ever before, Wilkie’s resurgence gives Gillard both the opportunity and the excuse to make amends for her earlier failure.
It’s never too late to do the right thing.
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