Pokies rout a call for grassroots action

Troy Bramston, former staffer for Prime Minister Rudd and author of Looking of the Light on the Hill, makes some salient points on the disappointing poker machine reforms:

That the ALP is unable to successfully advocate its policies or has the organisational capacity to campaign for them is causing concern in the party.

In an interview for this column, Bruce Hawker, one of the ALP’s most seasoned campaigners, said, “If you are going to take on a very powerful or a very wealthy opponent — like the clubs, the miners or the banks — then be prepared to have a fight because they will be prepared to use their dollars to get the outcome that they want.

“The problem for federal Labor,” Hawker said, “is that they don’t know how to campaign on issues any more. When they got a bit of heat over the poker-machine reforms, they had to backtrack, because they couldn’t win the argument for it.”

The pokie reform backdown is a terrible policy outcome, disastrous on a human scale, as well as having profound economic consequences for families, the community and the wider economy:

Speaking after the Prime Minister’s announcement of the compromise position on poker machine reform National Director of UnitingCare Australia, Lin Hatfield Dodds, said: “Problem gambling will continue to cause untold damage to the lives of people struggling with pokie addiction, with huge knock on impacts for their families and communities.”

“If the legislation outlined by the Prime Minister passes through Parliament we will have national legislation regulating pokies for the first time. This is a significant step in the right direction.

“The pokie industry profits from those most vulnerable in our community, relying on an immoral business model where 40% of the multi-billion dollar profits comes from less than 100,000 problem gamblers.

“The pokie industry and those who support it have thrown a lot of money at slowing down real reform. They may have saved their profits but not their standing in our community

“While we will not get the reform needed in this Parliamentary term, the pokie industry needs to be on notice that we will get there in the end. The human cost of the obscene pokies profit is just too high.

“Everyone is now on record agreeing that pokie reforms must be evidence based. Most of us, including the Productivity Commission, believe that the evidence for mandatory precommitment is already there and is unequivocal.

Like the mining tax, carbon pollution reduction scheme, and most other major reforms, this reform campaign was atrociously handled by the Prime Minister’s office and the cash-strapped ALP national secretariat:

And therein lies the rub. In addition to not being able to successfully advocate its policies, the ALP no longer has the membership, the local network or the capacity to organise at a grassroots level to campaign for its policies or to fight those who oppose them.

No other progressive group was able to mobilise community support for the poker-machine reforms. As usual, GetUp! only came in when it was too late and was ineffective. Paid advertising — almost exclusively what GetUp! does — was useless.

Saddled with debt from the 2007 election campaign and struggling to raise funds for the next election, the ALP is also strapped for cash.

Clubs, hotels and gaming interests were threatening a $40 million campaign in marginal seats. The money would fund television, radio and newspaper advertising. Unflattering life-size cardboard cut-outs of MPs would be positioned at the entrance to clubs.

Understandably, MPs beat a path to the Prime Minister’s office to get the reforms scuttled. While most independent MPs were not going to support the reforms, several government MPs were likely to cross the floor to vote against it or, more likely, abstain from voting.

Troy Bramston, in his book, advocates a revitalisation of the ALP focused on building grassroots campaigning capacity — in the mould of the US Democratic party, Organising for America and the various pro-Democratic organisations like Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream group.

Unfortunately, while both the US progressives and conservatives are spending millions of dollars on activist training and leadership development (e.g. the right-wing American Majority and Leadership Institute or progressive Wellstone Action), there is almost no sign of this happening in Australia. Aside from Campaign Action (which is under-resourced) and the ACTU Education Centre, there is really no well-resourced group committed to activist training and leadership development.

If Labor wants to win any potential conflict with future special-interest groups that aren’t widely thought of as heinous (like Big Tobacco), then it needs to take activist and leadership development seriously — and not just ALP members but fellow travellers and progressives in general.

6 responses to “Pokies rout a call for grassroots action”

  1. Dean Avatar

    Totally agree with the sentiment, but has Organising for America actually been successful is pushing back against big interests out of elections?

    1. Alex Avatar

      My reference to OFA was to its training and development activities. OFA trained thousands of activists and community leaders. I agree that they haven’t been successful in challenging corporate hegemony, although the health care bill was historic.

      1. Dean Avatar

        And you can hardly blame OFA for failing to crush the entrenched, rich interests of the corporate world.

        I guess what I’m wondering is what OFA activists go on to do? No point in the training if it’s having no long term political impact. I think we can spend time training people to be activists, but if we don’t have opportunities for them to be activists then it goes to waste.

      2. Alex White Avatar

        At least in the US, there is a genuinely good cause in fighting against the Republicans. Big political impact there — even more so since the Bush era.

  2. Josh Avatar

    The party has ceased to be anything worthwhile outside elections.
    But that’s not anyone’s fault but ours. And I’m sick of it.
    What are we doing next Alex (and Dean) ??

    1. Alex White Avatar

      I broadly agree — although there are of course groups like LEAN, Rainbow Labor and Labor for Refugees that have a powerful impact inside and outside the Party.

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