Robbed by a One Armed Bandit

Julia Gillard is in big trouble in Australia.

It would be a curious thing if this ungainly government finally comes a cropper on a failed attempt to treat Australia’s gambling addiction, but it is now the most likely cause of an early election.

Speculated election triggers include the departure of Craig Thomson (probably not imminent) and the withdrawal of one of the independents (unlikely – Windsor, Oakeshott and Bandt are all toast at an early election). But the wild card is left-leaning independent?Andrew Wilkie, who was elected with 13,788 primary votes but whom polling suggests would survive an election now.

The pokies issue is building.

There is no Australian equivalent to Moe’s Tavern in?The Simpsons – we drink at pubs or clubs. In the deep dark mists of time, state governments, desperate for their own sources of revenue, did a deal with the not-for-profit RSL, bowling and leagues clubs that shored up financial viability for both parties: access to pokies.

The clubs’ monopoly was eventually broken by hotels to produce the highest density of poker machines of any country in the world and make Aristocrat a billion-dollar public company. A race of people who would bet on two flies climbing the wall fell in love with the flashing lights and Pavlovian thrill when the bells ring out – jackpot.

Problem gambling is massive in Australia and Andrew Wilkie has a deal to?regulate?the industry.

There are 600,000 Australians who play pokies at least once a week, propped up on a comfy stool, taking Lady Luck and a spare $20 or $50 to a contest that they know they will probably lose. A cohort brings a hardened addiction to the stool and remains until nothing is left of the wages or pension. Real tragedies result.

To his credit, in return for supporting the government, Wilkie secured an iron-clad guarantee that Gillard would introduce a law to override the states and require mandatory pre-commitment for poker machine players in exchange for his continued support. This means each person will have to register, receive a card and set an upper limit on what they will wager in any one session. But will the deal stick?

Slight problem. The big money and the clubs are revolting against the plans. Their financial viability in many instances rests on?the?pokies.

The clubs have launched their first salvo in a series of public meetings across NSW, at which angry club members hurled abuse at the Labor MPs who are sponsoring the measure. But key club strategists say of Labor: ”They haven’t begun to feel the pain.”

The clubs have a decent case – not that pokies are good for the world, but that the proposed measures won’t work. They say addicts will find loopholes and alternatives; there is no upper limit; the costs of retro-fitting could exceed $10,000 a pop (hotly contested); and the money would be better spent on programs helping problem gamblers rather than punishing the recreational punter, and the war widows and junior sports teams their clubs support.

The clubs are about to launch phase two of a campaign that will make the mining industry’s response to the resource super profits tax look austere. In a hung Parliament, each Labor member is capable of defeating the measure, so get ready to see the face of your local Labor member on every beer coaster at your local club under this sort of line: ”Ask David Bradbury MP why he is attacking the?Penrith Panthers.” Prepare for a personally addressed direct mail campaign urging members to vote against their Labor member – unless they repent. The clubs see this as a death-match and they will fight it as hard and dirty as the union movement fought WorkChoices.

I love watching Australian politics about as much as I love watching American politics. The Aussies are better at the nasty stuff though, and they play hard.

Julia Gillard is going down, robbed by a one armed bandit.