LEAVING the beach on a recent Saturday afternoon on a day when a bright deep blue sky reached down to meet blue water, I walked through a beachfront hotel, through the bar and then a large room filled with poker machines. As always with gambling rooms, it was dark, with most of the light coming from the garish machines. The room was packed.
It was an off-putting contrast between beauty and the beast for someone who only gambles once a year (Melbourne Cup) and cannot see the pleasure people get from poker machines, but has no right to patronise them.
While it is plain to even the most avid libertarian that there is a dark side to the gambling industry - the disproportionate amount of money made by clubs and pubs from problem gamblers - the question of how to respond does not offer glib answers.
Which brings us to the mouse that roared, Andrew Wilkie. His day is done.
Last year, Wilkie uttered this famous threat: ''If they [the Gillard government] don't pull off this reform I will withdraw my support. I will do it regrettably but I'm a man of my word and I will hold the government to the commitment they made to me.''
His bluff has been called, and Wilkie will be found to be the big talker of federal politics. Elected to the House of Representatives as an independent from Hobart in the dead-heat election of 2010, he pronounced his willingness to bring down the Gillard government by withdrawing his support if it did not legislate to introduce a mandated pre-commitment scheme on poker machines in clubs and pubs. Punters would have a card which designated how much they were willing to lose on poker machines before they could start gambling.
Implementing such a scheme presented a logistical challenge and would be an imposition on the economics of the clubs and pubs, and was passionately opposed by the industry. Even so, Gillard, in her vulnerability, agreed to support Wilkie's reform, or a variation, such as slowing down the take on poker machines.
She was responding to a short-term threat, Wilkie's apparent willingness to blow himself up politically, but exacerbating a much bigger threat, Labor's vulnerability in the blue collar and marginal seats as the rage from the clubs and pubs industry rippled through the electorate.
As Gillard began to prevaricate, the man elected to Parliament on the issue of confronting problem gambling, Senator Nick Xenophon, independent of South Australia, proposed a more manageable policy of a $1 limit on each bet. As Gillard began to consider this as a back-up plan, much publicity was attached to her drawn-out negotiations with Wilkie.
This whole charade came to an end on Sunday after the two met in Hobart. In effect, if we take out the waffle about a trial reform in the ACT, the Prime Minister told Wilkie she could not deliver. It was time for him to put up or shut up.
Wilkie can't do either. He won't shut up and he can't put up. He has been undone by the major parties.
Specifically, one Liberal MP, the accident-prone, political dead-man-walking, Peter ''Slippery'' Slipper, single-handedly defused the Wilkie bomb by putting his hand up for the Speakership late last year. This removed Slipper from the voting ranks of the opposition and removed Wilkie as a credible suicide bomber because he no longer had a casting vote.
The Liberals share the general concern about poker machine addiction destroying vulnerable families, but regard Wilkie's signature reform as intrusive micro-management of the industry. The Liberals, and especially their leader, Tony Abbott, have been doing well out of the anger being fomented by the clubs industry.
Yesterday I spoke to a member of the shadow federal ministry about Wilkie's position and was told the Coalition had no interest in negotiating with him. This has always been his dilemma.
Even if he could bring the Gillard government down, which he now cannot, in the current environment he would be merely accelerating the election of a Coalition government that is even less interested in micro-managing the clubs than Labor. The Coalition never bothered negotiating with Wilkie. All he has left is possible support from the independent National from Western Australia, Tony Crook, a specialist in self-isolation.
Wilkie is essentially on his own. Like the people who can't stop feeding the machines.
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