09/11/2011 - 10:51

Richo rails against ‘nanny state’

09/11/2011 - 10:51

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A one-time Labor heavyweight says the push to impose restrictions on poker machine use is indicative of the federal government’s failings.

A one-time Labor heavyweight says the push to impose restrictions on poker machine use is indicative of the federal government’s failings.

FORMER federal Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson predicts his party would lose all its seats in Western Australia in the event of an early general election.

That would mean the defeat of Defence Minister Stephen Smith – who has been touted as an alternative Labor prime minister – in Perth, Special Minister of State Gary Gray in Brand, and Melissa Parke, the member for Fremantle.

That result would be worse than for the election after the Whitlam dismissal in 1975, when Labor’s sole WA member in the House of Representatives was Kim Beazley senior in Fremantle.

But according to Mr Richardson, the wipeout would not be confined to WA. Should the election be held on Saturday, for example, he believes Queensland would be in the same boat as WA, with even Foreign Affairs Minister (and former PM) Kevin Rudd among those likely to go.

“We (Labor) have not faced anything this bad in our lifetime,” Mr Richardson told me over coffee in Sydney recently. “Our support is at 29 per cent, the lowest ever for either major party. We have set the record. Labor does not seem to stand for anything. We don’t know what our base is.”

A former secretary of the NSW Labor Party and Hawke government minister, Mr Richardson was especially critical of the Gillard government’s proposal to impose limits on the amount gamblers can lose on poker machines. 

Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie, who has a crucial vote in the delicately balanced parliament, is behind the move, which is causing turmoil in safe Labor seats on the east coast. They just happen to be home to many leagues clubs with thousands of poker machines.

“It’s bad politics and bad policy, and it doesn’t tick any box,” Mr Richardson says of the government support for the Wilkie plan. “There is no evidence that the betting limit will work. I am the son of an addicted pokie gambler. I have known him to lose our family holiday money, so we could not go away. But I never blamed the St George Leagues Club for that. 

“What has happened to personal responsibility? This ‘nanny state’ we are in is trying to save everyone from themselves. The government is putting people off-side for no good reason.”

WA only has gaming machines at the Packer-owned Burswood Casino, but in other states they are widespread in clubs and hotels. Supporters of pokies say the profits help provide community-based services. Opponents say there are too many addicted gamblers, and the social ramifications are too damaging. 

Grassroots

REMEMBER when Bob Hawke brought consensus to Australian politics after he became prime minister in 1983? It was a reaction to 10 years of continual confrontation in Canberra, sparked initially by the hostility directed at Gough Whitlam’s Labor government.

That, and the Whitlam dismissal, poisoned politics around the nation, especially as Labor supporters rose to the calls to ‘maintain the rage’ and ‘right the wrong’.

One of Mr Hawke’s first actions as the ‘consensus’ prime minister was to convene the business summit, which brought all sides together in the House of Representatives chamber in the old Parliament House. It got people talking to each other again, in the national interest.

It was followed by the taxation summit, which thrashed out the idea of a consumption tax. The tax cart didn’t ‘fly’ at the time, but capital gains and fringe benefits taxes were introduced without too much fuss.  

Fast forward to today with the politics of confrontation well and truly alive in Canberra. The minority Gillard government is aiming to steer some contentious legislation through the parliament, including the carbon tax, mineral resource rent tax, and gambling restrictions.

The Opposition strongly opposes all measures, with Liberal leader Tony Abbott promising to repeal them should he become prime minister. One of the promises is ‘written in blood’. 

The one sure result of the combination of this hairy-chested approach and minority government is uncertainty. And that not only creates doubts in the public mind. More importantly it creates doubts for business, especially in decision-making for medium-term investments and the assessment of future profits.

Help could be on the way in the form of the newDemocracy Foundation, the brainchild of Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who jointly manages the Transfield engineering and construction empire founded by his family.

The foundation has just launched Democracy: Plan B, in the quest for alternatives for what Mr Belgiorno-Nettis sees as the country’s short-sighted adversarial governments.  

And he has enlisted some political heavyweights to promote the cause, including former premiers Geoff Gallop (WA) and Nick Greiner (NSW), as well as former federal Liberal deputy leader Fred Chaney.

Mr Belgiorno-Nettis says having disgruntled voters marching in the streets and making a noise in response to government decisions or proposals is one thing; but more direction is needed.

One option involves everyday citizens coming together in groups to consider some of the issues governments grapple with every day. Known as ‘citizens’ juries’ or ‘citizens’ parliaments’, they would have the capacity to make recommendations to governments on contentious issues.

Former sports agent Iain Walker, who was appointed executive director of newDemocracy earlier this year, says selecting representative community groups is not that hard. A carefully selected group of 100 people represents a 95 per cent match of the population, and 350 provides a 99 per cent match.

A graduate in public policy from Sydney University, Mr Walker says one of the problems politicians face is the motivation for certain policies and decisions. Many voters are suspicious of what is behind some decisions and whether they are being told the full story. 

Mr Gallop, who chairs the foundation’s research committee, told me politicians know they have to deal with the problems thrown up by the traditional adversarial approach,
and they are both committed and interested.

“But politicians really battle with being confident that they can go ahead with long-term thinking – and decision making – that affects vested interests,” he says. “I see this strategy of bringing people into the decision process, on top of elected representatives, really adding value to decision-making.”

Aspects of the approach have already been tried in WA. The road train and  drugs summits, Leighton development, taxi review and the state rail heritage strategy all involved drawing on the experiences of non-elected representatives to assist governments.

Mr Walker says there’s plenty of interest in the strategy from serving politicians as well. And he’s confident that the first pilot study into public involvement in helping to formulate “thorny long-term goals which don’t necessarily win votes”, will occur during the next 12 months.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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