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Gillard Left With One-Seat Majority as Wilkie Pulls Support

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard, Australia's prime minister. Photographer: Mark Graham/Bloomberg

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s parliamentary majority was reduced to one seat after an independent lawmaker withdrew his support, saying she’d broken a promise to tighten gambling laws.

Andrew Wilkie, who helped Gillard’s Labor Party form a minority government in 2010, withdrew his backing after she announced a trial of technology on Jan. 21 that will cap gambling losses on slot machines. Wilkie said the trial fell short of the government’s pledge to make such limits mandatory.

Gillard, who faces an election in 2013, is already facing criticism from opposition leader Tony Abbott for reneging on a pledge not to introduce a tax on carbon emissions. The prime minister argued she had insufficient support to pass Wilkie’s legislation following a campaign against gambling limits by thousands of recreation clubs, which use revenue from slots to fund community activities and cheaper meals.

“She’s going to be seen to be deceitful again,” said John Wanna, a professor of public administration at the Canberra-based Australian National University, who isn’t aligned with any political party. “She’s going to position herself exactly where Abbott’s attacking her, which is: ‘you can’t believe a word she said.’”

According to Wilkie, 95,000 Australians are problem slot-machine gamblers, losing A$5 billion ($5.2 billion) each year. He wants laws to force gamblers to limit their maximum loss. Passing such legislation could have hurt Gillard in Labor strongholds such as western Sydney, where gambling on poker machines, as they’re called in Australia, is a popular pastime.

‘Deal’s a Deal’

“She made a pact with the Australian people,” Wilkie said after Gillard announced her plans for a trial. “A deal’s a deal. When a politician makes a promise, that promise must be honored.”

Gillard formed a government in 2010 after the nation’s closest election in seven decades ended Labor’s majority. She has had to rely on the support of Wilkie, two other independents and a Greens Party lawmaker to secure the votes needed to pass legislation in the 150-member House of Representatives.

In November 2011, Gillard gained a two-seat majority in the lower house after the then-speaker Harry Jenkins, a Labor lawmaker, stepped down and was replaced in the traditionally non-voting post by a member of the opposition Liberal-National coalition.

Government Plan

With Wilkie gone, Gillard is left with an advantage that would disappear with the death or by-election loss of any Labor lawmaker. Labor is trailing Abbott’s coalition in opinion polls, with a Newspoll survey published Dec. 5 putting the governing party on 46 percent compared with 54 percent for the opposition. The survey of 1,153 voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The government has released its own proposals to combat problem gambling, which Gillard said was a political “compromise.”

The plan includes a daily withdrawal limit on cash machines in gaming venues, excluding casinos, by Feb. 1, 2013, and electronic warnings to users of slot machines.

Gillard will trial the technology for so-called pre-commitment in the Australian Capital Territory. If successful, slot machines across the nation would be ready to switch to the new technology by the end of 2016.

“Government is about getting things done,” the prime minister told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio today. “The circumstance here is that legislation for full mandatory pre-commitment would fail in the parliament.”

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