Friday, February 24, 2012

Defamatory Pre-Commitment

Just what transpired between Kevin Rudd and Clubs Australia?

As the looming showdown between Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd approaches, the tactics on both sides are becoming ever more personal and accusatory. The vitriol, so long denied, is now flying thick and fast; not just from the opponents themselves, but from their colleagues, supporters, interested parties and most corners of the media.

As this war of words escalates and rages on, claims have been made by both sides that have been instantly denied and countered; such is the cut and thrust of politics. Yet it’s telling that there’s one allegation that was deemed serious enough to provoke the threat of legal action; that allegation came from Clubs Australia.

Anyone who knows me or has read my other blog knows I am no fan of Clubs Australia. They are known to be selective, indeed creative with the truth, and repeatedly ignore the facts in the pursuit of their agenda. But their claim that they held discussions with pro-Rudd individuals in November last year about dropping mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines is hard to ignore.

This claim was given airtime on Channel 7 news on Wednesday night (22/2), and Clubs Australia later released (to AAP) the following statement from spokesman Jeremy Bath:

"Clubs Australia did meet with an MP close to Kevin Rudd in late November which was specifically to discuss the issue of mandatory pre-commitment.

"It was made clear at that meeting that Kevin Rudd was sympathetic to the concerns of clubs and as Prime Minister he would kill mandatory pre-commitment.

"Clubs Australia was encouraged to continue the campaign and was advised that we should target a select number of MPs.

"Clubs Australia then sought confirmation of Kevin Rudd's support through a known Rudd ally, which we duly received several days later."

The response from the Rudd camp was lightning fast, and was made some hours before he tendered his resignation as Foreign Minister:

“The claims are entirely untrue. The Foreign Minister has never asked any MP to speak to Clubs Australia at any time on any matter relating to poker machines.

“The Minister would consider the publishing of such a claim as defamation, and would take action accordingly.”

And there it may lie. Claim and denial. But why was this claim so damning that Rudd felt the need to invoke the possibility of legal action?

It is important to remember that Rudd was one of the first federal MPs to make a stand against poker machines. In the lead-up to the 2007 federal election he famously said:

"I hate poker machines and I know something of their impact on families. I have spoken at length with (World Vision chief executive and welfare activist) Tim Costello on this."

Rudd was seen as someone who could finally tackle Australia’s growing reliance on poker machine revenue and do something to reduce the level of gambling addiction and harm in this country. But once elected, he distanced himself from that stance.

In March 2008, Rudd stated:

"I am no wowser (but) I don't think poker machines are good. But the gaming industry employs about 77,000 people around Australia and these are decent folk earning a living.

"Then you have got the fact that state governments have a very significant revenue dependency on them. And then beyond that again you have the fact of clubs. Sporting clubs use this as a significant source of revenue, depending on what part of the country you are looking at."

In November 2008, legislation put forward to impose restrictions on the poker machine industry by Family First, including banning ATMs in venues and note acceptors, was rejected by the government.

In 2009, the Rudd government tasked the Productivity Commission with running a second inquiry into problem gambling (the first was in 1999). Yet when the draft report was released in October of that year, he refused to commit to any of its recommendations... except the recommendation to liberalise online gambling.

And when the report was finally released by the government, in June 2010, their formal response was Let’s Wait And See. Of course, within hours of that report being released, Rudd was no longer prime minister.

It seems clear that Rudd, despite his reputation as someone who “hates poker machines”, has had little inclination to actually do anything about them for quite some time.

Perversely, it was Rudd’s demise in June 2010 that propelled poker machine reform well and truly into the political spotlight. The 2010 federal election was effectively decided with a handshake and an agreement between Gillard and Independent Andrew Wilkie, and the government was locked on a course of poker machine reform that put it at odds with the gambling industry from day one. Wilkie’s insistence on real poker machine reform, and Gillard’s reliance on his vote, made sure of that.

While those reforms grew progressively weaker, to the point where Wilkie formally withdrew his support for Gillard earlier this year, it cannot be denied that they became a part of the national conversation in a way that never happened in Rudd’s time.

Clubs Australia was without question the most vocal, organised and influential opponent of the proposed reforms. They attacked the government and its plans before the dust had settled on the election result, and their campaign included targeting Labor MPs in marginal seats across NSW and Queensland. It was this tactic that allegedly prompted many of these MPs to approach Gillard and tell her, in no uncertain terms, that the reforms would see them lose their seats at the next election.

And this may well be at the root of Rudd’s furious threat of defamation. To be linked with an industry that had actively campaigned against the sitting government, of which he was a part, would be political suicide. Throw into that mix the reports that he was canvassing Wilkie for support at the same time, and we get the picture of a man who was prepared to do and say anything to shore up his numbers. A man who has indeed been planning this for quite some time.

Of course, it’s no secret that Clubs Australia did in fact meet with “an MP close to Kevin Rudd;” that MP was Alan Griffin, who is the big numbers man in Rudd’s camp. Griffin admits to the meetings but denies telling Clubs Australia that he was dealing with them on Rudd’s behalf. However, the key to this meeting isn’t what was said; it’s what hasn’t been said.

Griffin is a known Rudd supporter. He would not have had to explain this to Clubs Australia. They may be factually creative, but they’re not stupid.

Rudd’s denial states that he “has never asked any MP to speak to Clubs Australia at any time on any matter relating to poker machines.” That does not mean the conversation did not take place, or that Rudd was unaware of it. Given the care with which Rudd crafts his comments and statements, his emphasis was undoubtably intentional.

Still, it may yet be a rare slip of the tongue that points to the truth of this matter. Arriving back in Brisbane this morning, Rudd gave a press conference to the assembled throng at the airport. He claimed that some Labor MPs had been threatened with the loss of their preselection if they supported him in 2010, and that the same may be happening again. His comment on this?

“That’s un-Australian.

Sounds like a Clubs Australia slogan to me.

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