One of the time bombs ticking away at the heart of Julia Gillard’s fragile government is her promise to Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie that she will deliver poker machine reforms by the middle of next year.
Few people believe the Prime Minister will be able to force the system of mandatory pre-commitment through the Labor caucus, let alone federal parliament.
It is through pure cynicism that Gillard has persisted with the charade that she will deliver on her promise, using it as a ploy to extend the tenure of her clearly dysfunctional government.
Thus far, Wilkie seems to have concluded it is in his interests also to maintain the charade, as this allows him to continue to build his support base, which is crucial if he wants to hold his seat for more than one term.
At last year’s election, Wilkie attracted just 21.26 per cent of the primary vote in the seat of Denison, with 35.79 per cent going to Labor’s Jonathan Jackson; 22.65 per cent to the Liberals’ John Cameron; and 18.98 per cent to the Greens’ Geoffrey Couser.
Preferences from the Greens allowed Wilkie to increase his vote past that of the Liberal Party, with Liberal preferences also favouring him. However, Wilkie only just got over the line with 51.21 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.
The bad news for Wilkie is the Liberal Party is still seething over what it views as his duplicity after the election, during negotiations over which party would form government with the support of the independents. Wilkie demanded from Tony Abbott a commitment to rebuild the Hobart hospital at a cost of $1 billion. Abbott consulted with the medical fraternity as to whether the demand was justified before going back to Wilkie and agreeing to the deal.
Wilkie responded by accusing Abbott of being reckless in agreeing to his demand, which raised the question of why he made the demand in the first place.
It would be an understatement to say the opposition does not trust Wilkie. There is deep-seated anger at what many believe was deliberate dishonesty from someone who never intended to support an Abbott-led Coalition government. Hence it is highly unlikely the Liberal Party will direct preferences to Wilkie ahead of Labor at the next election.
However, there is one scenario in which he could retain his seat without such Liberal support. It is a scenario that must be eating away at Labor Party strategists. Ironically, it is Gillard who has created the perfect conditions for Wilkie to retain his seat in circumstances that would destroy her government.
Assuming Wilkie cannot win enough primary votes in his own right, he needs Labor’s primary vote to collapse and for the Liberal vote to strengthen. He would need to gamble that Greens preferences flowed more strongly to him so Labor’s vote remained below that of the Liberals. In that scenario, Labor preferences would flow to Wilkie and he could win by a bigger margin than last year. It is thus in Wilkie’s interests for an election to be held when the Labor vote is at its lowest ebb and when the Liberal vote is at its highest point. Should Wilkie come to this conclusion and pull support from the government while it is performing so poorly, he can thank Gillard for creating the perfect environment.
Labor is polling at historic lows and Gillard is proving to be one of the most unpopular prime ministers on record.
Many political analysts attribute Gillard’s decision to break her pre-election promise not to introduce a carbon tax as the key reason for the monumental drop in Labor’s support.
However, some Labor backbenchers have reported the carbon tax is causing less voter angst than the deal Gillard made with Wilkie over proposed reforms to poker machines. Clubs in many traditionally strong Labor areas are up in arms about the proposal and believe it will have a huge impact on their revenues.
Labor MP for the seat of Banks Darryl Melham — a life member and present president of Revesby Workers Club — is under enormous pressure to oppose the reforms. Melham had an 8.92 per cent swing against him at the last federal election, which took the normally safe Labor seat down to a margin of just 1.45 per cent. Melham can kiss his seat goodbye unless there is a dramatic change of position on poker machine reform. To achieve this, Gillard would have to reject the Wilkie reforms, although that risks the withdrawal of his support for her minority government.
It does not automatically follow that the Gillard government would collapse, because it would require Wilkie, along with Bob Katter, to support the Coalition in blocking supply or in a vote of no confidence in the government.
There is no shortage of grounds on which Wilkie could justify his support for a vote of no confidence in the Gillard government. When making his announcement in September last year that he would support Gillard, he claimed his decision was based on his judgment that Labor offered the best hope for a government that would be “stable, competent and ethical”.
Wilkie was particularly concerned about policies regarding asylum-seekers and has been greatly troubled about the now-failed Malaysia Solution.
Labor has proved deeply hypocritical in proposing to send asylum-seekers to Malaysia, a country that is not a signatory to the UN convention on refugees. The policy came after a decade of criticism of Coalition policy of offshore processing on Nauru, on the grounds that it is not a signatory to the UN convention, despite the fact asylum-seekers on Nauru remained under the direct care of the Australian government.
Not only has the High Court make it clear that the Malaysia Solution was illegal, it arguably was deeply unethical.
Wilkie has also been troubled by the Craig Thomson scandal and has voted with the Coalition during failed attempts at forcing Thomson to face parliamentary scrutiny. This has been compounded by Gillard’s unqualified support for Thomson.
Among the many things that should be keeping Gillard awake at night is the thought that Wilkie comes to the conclusion Labor is not worthy of his support when Labor is most vulnerable. It would be her worst nightmare. Wilkie would survive while the Gillard government would be obliterated in a landslide of support for the Coalition.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the co-authored novel Fools’ Paradise: Life in an Altered State and his memoir, My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey.