The federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie has declared gambling reform as a “fundamental test” of character for Labor as pressure mounts on the party at the state and federal level to follow the New South Wales Coalition in committing to action on poker machines.
The Perrottet government has unveiled a $344m plan to switch the state to cashless poker machines over the next five years – a move that has been resisted by the state’s Labor leader, Chris Minns, who has only committed to a limited trial.
The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, refused to weigh in on the issue on Tuesday, saying it was a matter for the states, as advocates call for a federal intervention.
Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup
Wilkie said he planned to travel to Sydney before the March state election and would be “seeking opportunities to speak up”, a decade after the then prime minister Julia Gillard backed out of substantive changes in the space.
“I see poker machine reform at this state election as much more than just about poker machines. I see it as a fundamental test of the character of the major political parties and it’s a test that Mr Minns will fail if he doesn’t get on board,” Wilkie told Guardian Australia.
In question time on Tuesday the Tasmanian independent asked Albanese if he would seize the momentum for reform, to which the prime minister replied that everyone “knows the damage that problem gambling can cause”, but that it was a state responsibility.
“We recognise there is more work to do,” he said.
Wilkie wants to see the prime minister intervene and ask all premiers and chief ministers to “harmonise” harm minimisation methods or enact more forceful regulation, including using tax powers, the Corporations Act or money laundering laws.
On Monday Tim Costello, the Alliance for Gambling Reform’s chief advocate, called on Albanese to lead reform and to pressure Minns to match Perrottet’s plan to introduce mandatory cashless gaming.
Minns has backed a handful of the measures, including a ban on VIP signage outside venues, a statewide exclusion register and banning political donations from pubs and clubs.
But he has refused to commit to universal cashless gaming.
“I’m not saying we’re against it. If it works, we will do it but we want to make sure the technology is in place,” he said.
Senior NSW Labor figures have told the Guardian they were not opposed to dealing with problem gambling in some form, but felt they did not need to make a bigger commitment ahead of the election because it wasn’t a vote-winning issue.
“People are talking about education, the cost of living,” one ministerial hopeful said.
That attitude was dismissed as highly cynical and disappointing by federal independent MP Dai Le, who said Labor needed to do what was right, rather than what would win votes.
“That’s really not understanding the community that they seek to represent,” she said, while calling on federal Labor MPs from western Sydney to “develop a piece of policy that would assist their constituents”.
Gambling researcher Dr Charles Livingstone believes the federal government has many levers to pull if it is serious about protecting constituents in Labor’s western Sydney heartland, where problem gambling is rife.
He said the federal government could introduce and regulate a national pre-commitment system or could explore consumer protection frameworks, as it has for online gambling.
“If you’ve got a government which is concerned about social equity and is tolerating this sort of massive source of social inequity in its heartland, then you’ve got to start asking questions about where their hearts really lie,” he said.
Perrottet pushed the reforms through cabinet after a damning report from the NSW Crime Commission last year found billions of dollars of dirty money was cycling through poker machines each year.
In Victoria, similar allegations of money laundering were made during the Finkelstein royal commission into Crown Casino, after which the state government passed legislation that included a $1,000 daily cash limit at the venue.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, on Tuesday said he “wouldn’t rule out” further changes and said the government’s focus was the “small percentage of the community” that were problem gamblers.
The Victorian Coalition said it had no plans to match its NSW counterparts.