Video poker machines may be something of an afterthought in most developed countries, but the pokies, as they’re known in Australia, have come perilously close to bringing down the national government. Following Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s decision to back out of a deal to introduce mandatory pre-commitment pokies technology, independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie has withdrawn his conditional support of Gillard’s minority government. Wilkie says Gillard is “in breach of the written agreement she signed … a deal’s a deal and it must be honored.” Unless, of course, it isn’t.
Following the country’s tightly contested 2010 federal election, Gillard’s Labour party assumed power only with the backing of a Green MP and three independents. With Wilkie’s defection, Labour now controls just 75 of the House of Representatives’ 150 seats. However, in November 2011, Coalition MP Peter Slipper accepted the role of Speaker of the House — a non-voting position – meaning, even with the loss of Wilkie’s vote, Labour still holds a one-vote majority if challenged by a non-confidence motion. Gillard justified her decision to renege on her deal with Wilkie by saying there was “not the support” in the House for Wilkie’s pre-commitment plan to pass. The next federal election is in 2013, and many in Gillard’s own party were reportedly leery of pushback from Australia’s deep-pocketed gaming industry.
The pokie plan envisioned by Wilkie was for pre-commitment legislation to be enacted by May and the technology rolled out by 2014. The legislation would have required gamblers to set loss limits in advance and limited wagers to $1 per spin. Gillard’s new pokies plan is for pre-commitment technology to be built into all new machines from 2013, followed by a one-year trial of the restrictions, but only in the Australian Capital Territory (the nation’s smallest self-governing internal territory). In addition, cash withdrawals from ATMs in pokies clubs (but not casinos) would be limited to a maximum $250. This new plan would delay nationwide introduction of pre-commitment as late as 2016, and even then, only if evidence from the ACT trial supports the theory that pre-commitment effectively reduces the woes of problem gamblers.
The post-Wilkie defection rhetoric from the anti-gambling side probably reached its apex via Simon Sheikh, national director of advocacy group GetUp!, who claimed Gillard’s about-face meant that industry lobby group Clubs Australia “has blood on its hands.” Independent MP Nick Xenophon, who never met a form of gambling he couldn’t equate with the Apocalypse, said “the only thing Julia Gillard is pre-committed to is staying in power.” Clubs Australia pushed back with claims that Australians were weary of Wilkie’s “posturing and threatening” of the government.