The wages of sin

On 1 February 2012, the Australian Electoral Commission published its annual release of political donations data, seventeen months after the 2010 election.

If Andrew Wilkie’s failed push for mandatory pre-commitment technology didn’t make apparent the major parties’ vested interests in allowing problem gamblers to spiral into debt, then the donation figures from the pokies industry to both the major parties for 2010-2011 adds unquestionable clarity to the situation.

Originally, the assertion that it’s the government’s responsibility to regulate how much money Neanderthals pour into pokies struck me as a touch invasive. But my position on gambling, more specifically (albeit not exclusively) the pokies, as being little more than a tax on stupidity, has been swayed considerably by the statistics.

The amount of money Australians lose gambling each year is more than anyone else in the world loses. By double. It is embarrassing.

The Darwinian element goes out the window at that point. We are not a country of stupid people, nor losers. We do, however, have a gambling problem, and it’s time for an intervention.

So why are the ALP and Coalition dragging their heels? Neither of the major party leaders supported Wilkie’s call for an introduction of mandatory pre-commitment technology.

The answer is in the numbers, and therein a new issue is brought to the fore, one that has plagued the veracity of US ‘democracy’ for years. The major parties are swimming against the tide of reform for the reason that they have allowed themselves to be buttered up and sat on by lobbyists with deep pockets.

Lax commonwealth electoral donation laws, in conjunction with the influence wielded by heavyweight lobbyists like Clubs Australia, has resulted in a severely compromised level of efficiency and transparency in the process of weathering our gambling losses.

Now that Gillard has backed a plan for the technology’s eventual trial period, and now that the heat has died down on the philosophical debate surrounding the government’s place between a person and their wallet, the debate ought to shift in focus.

Why must our major parties heed the guidance of poker-machine profiteering parasites in order to shape public policy toward a significant mental health issue? And should we be satisfied with the seventeen month information delay?

The democratic principles upon which our current legal framework is premised are undermined by the troubling potential for policy-shaping by unelected, non-accountable third parties with private interests.

According to the AEC, the major parties collected pokies industry donations just shy of $2.4million, with the ALP and Coalition receiving $1.2million and $1.18million respectively.

These figures provide shocking testament to the ever-louder calls for fiercer regulation of Government donations, as they make very obvious the way in which the national response to our embarrassing gambling crisis may have been influenced by pokies lobby groups.

Law reforms proposed by John Faulkner under Rudd’s leadership that would have shortened the electoral donation reporting period and capped the amount at $1000 were rejected by the Coalition. The major parties are thus still bound by Howard’s $11,500 limit for non-reportable electoral donations.

Furthermore, the distinction between a ‘donation’ and a ‘payment’ is convoluted to the point that laws surrounding ‘donations’ are made redundant by companies like Austereo, who gave $197,788 worth of a “gift in kind” to the Liberals, and $150,000 to Labor. The limits on ‘payments’ and ‘donations’ greatly vary due to the words’ different legal definitions. The distinction is highly dubious given that they both constitute the endowment of monies to the parties, with the only real difference being that ‘payments’ can go unreported.

The AEC report is a digest of big business attempting to buy political influence in all the major policy issues of 2010-2011. Public and political debate surrounding plain-packaged cigarettes saw big tobacco fork out $14 million in lobbying campaigns. Similarly, the mining tax fiasco, albeit in its winding down stages at the beginning of last year, saw lobby groups spend $6 million in 2010, on top of the $17 million already spent in the prior financial year.

There is no way of measuring the roles the gambling, mining and tobacco industries have played in our country’s health and wellbeing other than in the numbers they are forced to report by Commonwealth electoral law, and those numbers speak for themselves.