I’d like to introduce you to yet another Australian politician you’re unlikely to have heard of in the Northern hemisphere. This one, however, has a gun pressed against the head of the Gillard government. And he has openly announced the date on which he will pull the trigger.
Meet Andrew Wilkie, the independent Federal MHR for Denison—the seat covering Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart. Wilkie’s a bit of an odd duck; a former army intelligence officer who resigned his position over ethical concerns related to Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war, he has at times been a member of both the Liberal Party and the Australian Greens, running as a Greens candidate in the 2004 Federal election, before moving to Tasmania and running successfully as an independent in 2010. As one of the four MHRs holding the balance of power in the Lower House the day after the election, he found himself in a uniquely powerful position, and entered into a period of seventeen days of negotiations with both Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard. To secure Wilkie’s commitment to guarantee Labor both Supply and Confidence in the House (the bare minimum requirements for a government to function under the Westminster system), Gillard acceded to (amongst other things) one extraordinary demand of Wilkie’s.
Wilkie had campaigned in 2010 on an anti-gambling platform. Specifically, he opposed the spread of poker machines (“pokies” in our vernacular). A little history here may clarify: prior to the 1990s, poker machines in NSW had been restricted by law to registered clubs (predominantly RSL and sports clubs). The rationale of this arrangement was an implied (though never codified) social contract, in which the profits from these organisations were pumped back into the community According to this paper, New South Wales clubs are home to 40% of all “high intensity” poker machines in Australia, and an estimated 8.2% of all those worldwide (despite having less than 0.1% of the world’s population). It was only a matter of time before pubs wanted their slice of the action, and through the politically powerful Australian Hotels Association (the pubs’ peak industry body, and one of the largest donors to both major parties) successfully lobbied for the introduction of poker machines into NSW pubs. As a working musician at the time, I can tell you the immediate effect of this move: it pretty much killed off the thriving live music industry in the state. Within a year of the new legislation, virtually every pub in Sydney had removed its stage area and replaced it with an enclosed pokies room. The social effect of introducing these machines in an environment where the main activity was alcohol consumption was also profound. According to a number of studies, problem gamblers represent just 2% of all those who play the pokies. Yet they are responsible for a staggering 46% of poker machine takings. And therein lies the moral hazard, and the nub of the problem.
Wilkie’s solution is to introduce mandatory pre-commitment levels for all players of poker machines. Essentially, players will need a license to gamble. He cites as justification the enormous social problems caused in this country by gambling addiction; problems which are undeniable in this country, and whose follow-on costs in family breakup, drug and alcohol addiction and suicide are unquantifiable. Julia Gillard, in her desperation to seize power at any price, agreed to introduce legislation creating mandatory pre-commitment for all poker machines in the country. Wilkie’s promise: that if such legislation has not been passed into law by the time of next May’s Federal Budget, he will withdraw his support for the Gillard government. Simple as that.
The Libertarian view on gambling is clear. People who wish to self-destruct are going to do so; be it by gambling, alcohol, drugs or any number of other high-risk activities. Laws cannot stop them from doing so, never have and never will. For instance, Frank Hardy’s classic 1950 opus Power Without Glory (a roman a clé biography of underworld figure John Wren) paints a highly detailed picture of the social ills related to gambling in inner-city Melbourne a century ago, long before the advent of poker machines, or even electricity in most of that city. Put most simply, you can’t save people from themselves; and to try to do so, passing laws constraining everybody in a futile attempt to save the self-destructive minority, may make the law-passers and their boosters feel good about themselves in the short term, but inevitably corrupts government, police and the court system, while creating a criminal underworld that serves to give people what they want but is forbidden to them by the self-righteous few. Just how many historical examples of this do these people need before they wise up?
That said, and though I disagree with Wilkie on this and many other issues, I can’t fault him from a democratic point of view on this: he is doing exactly what he told the voters of Denison before the election he would do, and exactly what he told Gillard before they sealed their agreement he would do. If only there were more people in parliament who acted thus.
Meanwhile, the Gillard government is having a blue fit. Long accustomed to regarding promises, whether made by themselves or anyone else in politics, as a useful means to the acquisition of power, thence to be discarded and forgotten, they are horrified to discover at least one person who uses the dictionary definition of the word. The Registered Clubs Association is targeting in marginal Labor seats, a multi-million dollar advertising campaign against the proposed legislation, branding it a “license to punt”, and even—and in this country, far worse—a “footy tax”! At least twenty Labor MPs, many in traditional working-class, Labor heartland areas, have reported to Gillard that the issue is hurting them even more than the Carbon Tax, and is the equivalent of electoral suicide. Gillard is unmoved (being herself the member of one of the safest Labor electorates in the country). In any case, the legislation at a Federal level is contingent upon the states following suit (gambling legislation being a state government responsibility), and given a) of all state governments, half are now conservative and polls show the other half facing the same oblivion Labor is staring at federally, and b) gambling, along with alcohol and tobacco, are among the few ways states have of raising taxes independent of the Federal government, Gillard’s task is equivalent to one of herding cats—and very reluctant cats at that.
It gets even murkier. Replacing Gillard in a party-room spill before next May’s budget (and Wilkie’s deadline) won’t save Labor, either. Wilkie insists his deal of Supply and Confidence is with Gillard personally, and not with the Australian Labor Party. He has stated he “cannot imagine” supporting another Prime Minister who came to power in that manner. Unless Gillard’s successor can convince the non-aligned Queensland independent, ultra-conservative outback pol Bob Katter, to replace Wilkie’s vote (and the buzz in our newspapers at the moment is that Kevin Rudd, a fellow Queenslander with a long working relationship with him, might just be able to), a party-room spill will mean an early election, and the end of Labor.
And all this, because of one independent who isn’t even the most popular in his own electorate. Check out the results of the 2010 Federal Election in Denison:
Note that the final figure at the bottom relates to voter turnout, which is why it isn’t 100%. Wilkie is in parliament in the first place, having received less than 14,000 primary votes—four out of five Denison electors voted for someone else, or no-one at all—and is the beneficiary of our preferential voting system, and of the major parties playing games with preference deals. Had they allocated their preferences on the basis of principle, rather than expediency, we would never have come to this situation. Wilkie, meantime, has seen his electorate become the recipient of extorted Federal government spending far in excess of its demographic justification. And the Liberals, to their shame, are reportedly offering Wilkie their own preferences at the next Federal election in exchange for him switching sides now, guaranteeing this unpopular out-of-towner will remain Hobart’s representative in the Federal parliament for the next three years.
Thanks everyone for holding the fort while I’ve been away. I’ve had some technical issues with WordPress (for the techos, the flash and browser file upload plugins are ISP sensitive) and I couldn’t load any photos. All fixed now, and I’ll update the road trip in the next few days.