The only time Tasmanians have had a say over poker machine policy in Tasmania was during the 2002 election. The problem was that we didn’t know it at the time.

The once anti-pokies Labor Party for reasons of ‘sovereign risk’ claimed that the 1993 contract with Federal Hotels (not due to expire until 2008) must be fully honoured. On this matter they had the full support of the Liberal Party. Thus with both the major parties committed to the status quo for another six years, Gaming Minister Paul Lennon reassuring the electorate that the number of poker machines was now ‘about right’, and Federal Hotels talking of a ‘mature’ market, it proved impossible to make poker machines an issue in the 2002 election despite the widespread community concern.

Yet within six months of Labor triumph we now know that secret negotiations were entered into with Federal Hotels to extend their monopoly contract until 2018. Against explicit Treasury advice no attempt was made to put out the most valuable public licence available in Tasmania to tender or even model its market value (costing the state literally hundreds of millions of dollars in foregone revenue). Equally seriously, despite the years of desperate pleas by community groups for a full socio-economic impact study to be done (for which the millions of unspent dollars sitting in the Community Support Levy trust account, which the Gaming Control Act specified was for research and support services, could have paid for many times over), negotiations were uninformed by evidence of what the social and economic impact of poker machines in Tasmania had been up to this time.

The sorry outcome of this shoddy process was that Parliament was presented in May 2003 with a fait accompli that locked Tasmania into something worse than the status quo until 2018, with the Government and Federal Hotels working together on a crude PR campaign which threatened dire consequences should our political representatives dare amend the signed off Deed (suddenly we were to have 1500 extra machines flood the ‘mature’ market should the legislation not go through, and 180 (never-delivered) jobs on the east coast if it did).

Meanwhile the Productivity Commission had long since completed the first major study into poker machines in Australia, conservatively finding that forty per cent of poker machine expenditure was by addicts living sad and desperate lives. This meant that in Tasmania about three to five thousand predominantly low income pokies addicts were the core business underpinning Federal Hotels extraordinary spate of takeovers of established iconic Tasmanian tourism businesses (which the Government termed investment) and the parachuting of the Farrell family (full owners of Federal Hotels) into BRW’s list of the top twenty richest Australian families. But the addicts suffering seemed of no interest to a State Government determined to ensure that the highly unpopular status quo would be locked in well before the next election (due in 2006 – disturbingly close to the original 2008 contract expiry) whatever the cost to addicts’ families, budget responsibility, community well being, and democratic rights.

The poker machine policy of the Labor and Liberal Parties is essentially no different in 2010. It is not just that both parties are committed to honouring the current contract, but that both have avoided stating their position on extending it. Most critically, neither of the two major parties have made any commitment not to extend the contract beyond 2018 during the next parliamentary term. There is however one critical difference between this election and 2002. This time, despite the Labor and Liberal silence, pokies and the pokies contract are an election issue.

The Greens have released a much stronger policy than they have taken to any previous election. For the first time the party has promised to make Tasmania pokies free and get rid of poker machines from the so-called ‘casinos’ (which have long since been transformed into large pokie barns which account for about half of all pokie expenditure in the state and have only nominal table gaming).

The Greens promise to make Tasmania pokies free mirrors that of the states first high profile anti-pokies candidate, Andrew Wilkie, who is running as an independent in Denison (although the Greens promise to begin the removal prior to the expiry of the current contract goes beyond Wilkie’s stance).

It is nearly a year since Andrew Wilkie promised to make Tasmania pokies free. As far as I know this was the first time since pokies came into pubs and clubs in 1997 that such an objective had been publicly stated by any prominent public figure or community group in Tasmania, such was the taken for granted place of the casinos in Tasmanian politics and society. I know that when I provided advice to Andrew when he was developing his pokies policy it focused, following the general community organisation and Green line, on pokies in pubs and clubs. The decision to get rid of the pokies altogether was Wilkies’ alone.

Whether the recent change in Greens policy has been sparked by Andrew Wilkie’s position is not of importance. No doubt the party’s thinking was also informed by the proven social harm associated with the largest and most poorly regulated of all Tasmania’s pokies barns. However there is no doubt that Wilkies independent act profoundly changed the context of the pokies debate in Tasmania for all the major political parties. It is clear that even if they manage to avoid taking a position during the campaign, it will now be much harder (although not impossible!) for either a Premier Bartlett or Hodgman to repeat the crude duplicity of 2002 and sign off on another contract extension immediately after the election. Probably only a small proportion of the electorate will vote directly on poker machines (although given that the latest research showed that it is now one in two Tasmanians know someone with a gambling problem, four times the level in 1996, this might be higher than most people assume), but the likelihood of another secret deal on pokies is now much less than it was before Wilkie began his campaign.

Wilkie’s independent policy action has highlighted why independent candidates of compassion, intelligence and proven integrity, matter, especially in a state where civil society and public debate outside the environmental movement remains so poorly developed. In the seat of Denison, where the large surplus Green quota has repeatedly helped re-elect quota short Labor members in the past, and still seems unlikely to be sufficient to elect a second Greens member, the Wilkie candidature is doubly important. I don’t agree with Andrew Wilkie on every issue, but I sure am grateful he is running.