On Thursday the Member for Denison, Andrew Wilkie, warned the government against alienating him over poker machine reform because his vote might be needed again before too long.
Within three days the Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper, had slid from his job having racked up two scandals at once – the knockout double of both sex and money – and the government was back to a one-seat majority, including Wilkie. It means pokie reform is back to being front and centre.
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Julia Gillard did three core deals with crossbenchers to become prime minister in 2010: she agreed to a carbon tax of $23 (the Greens), promised that every community in regional Australia would get the NBN (Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor) and agreed to legislate for mandatory pre-commitment on poker machines (Andrew Wilkie).
Of the three, pokie reforms have proved the biggest headache.
The carbon tax is controversial to say the least, but there’s a residual hope within the government that the compensation packages will mean that when it actually happens it won’t be so bad and, in fact, will cause the Opposition a problem because it won’t be able to fund the same packages.
The Shadow Minister for Communications, Malcolm Turnbull, is doing a sterling job banging on about the NBN, but Telstra’s legion of shareholders are happy and so are the regional internet users represented by Tony Windsor and Oakeshott, while the city-dwellers who are subsidising these groups are blissfully unaware that they’re doing so.
The problem with poker machine pre-commitment is that some of the pillars of marginal seats are quietly and happily living off the misery of pokie players, and these particular vested interests are both rich and loud.
What’s more there will be no obvious payback for the winners of pre-commitment legislation as there will be with the carbon tax after July 1 and the NBN – just a nuisance measure to stop gambling addicts from losing so much.
So while Julia Gillard legislated for the carbon tax and pressed on with the NBN, she needed to renege on the deal with Wilkie because of the ferocious and effective campaign from NSW leagues clubs in particular that would have guaranteed a debacle at the next election.
Which is why she went for Peter Slipper as Speaker, knowing he was probably a time bomb. Andrew Wilkie was a time bomb as well, but he was ticking; Slipper was wearing black robes and reviving the slow procession of the Speaker into the House, looking the very model of a modern major general, and making everyone think he’d be okay.
In the event he blew up spectacularly pretty quickly and, failing the swift dismissal of all charges against him, the government is back to a one-seat majority. Hello pre-commitment.
By doing what Andrew Wilkie wants, at least Julia Gillard is a chance to be PM for another 18 months. If she doesn’t, she won’t last till her 51st birthday on September 29.
This article first appeared on Business Spectator.