The country these days seems obsessed with approval ratings. Our politicians, TV shows and newspapers are seemingly all driven by the need to pump those ratings up, and any drop is a calamity of outrageous proportions.
Yet there’s one institution that keeps going quietly about its business, and so far in 2011 it has an approval rating of 100%. Not a bad effort, you might think… but no. The problem is that the institution in question is the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation (the VCGR), and their 100% approval rating is by no means a good thing.
You see, the VCGR is responsible for all decisions concerning the movement of poker machines in Victoria. If a venue wants more pokies, or less (as is often the case), or if a club or a hotel wants to gain a brand new gambling licence, it’s the VCGR who takes their application, assesses it and makes a decision. And so far in 2011, with the year two thirds gone, the VCGR has processed nineteen applications for new or increased gambling licences, and has approved each and every one.
The VCGR’s 100% approval rating is a fail-mark for some very important reasons.
For starters, it shows just how little power local councils actually have when it comes to poker machines within their boundaries. Nine of the nineteen applications were formally opposed by the relevant local councils, but their objections were dismissed. It made no difference whether there were problem gambling policies in place or not.
Seven of the nineteen applications were for venues in the top ten pokie spending areas in the state. The cities of Brimbank (1), Greater Dandenong (4), Greater Geelong (5), Whittlesea (7) and Wyndham (10) between them posted poker machine losses of more than half a billion dollars in the last financial year ($559 million, in fact), yet all their applications were also approved.
In total, 343 new and additional poker machines have been approved this year by the VCGR. Yes, in some cases that approval has been dependent on relocating machines from other existing venues, but those applications were among the most vigorously opposed as councils are becoming increasingly aware of the impact of poker machines on different demographic areas. Ultimately, it made no difference.
But the most disturbing aspect of this 100% approval rating lies within the applications themselves. Of the nineteen applications that the VCGR has approved this year, eighteen stated that the venue in question was planning to undertake significant renovations, or upgrades to facilities, or brand new development work. In each of these cases, the applicant stated that without the new or additional poker machines, no such work would take place. And the VCGR rolled over every time.
In other words:
Applicant: we want to expand or improve our venue but we don’t have enough money. We need more. And poker machines are an easy way of making more money… far easier than fund-raising drives, or community involvement and sponsorship, or any of those old-fashioned ways of making money. So give us more pokies so we can get on with it, because without the pokies, it won’t happen.
VCGR: no problem.
Am I the only one who has a problem with this? The industry has hit on the winning formula for successful poker machine applications, and the VCGR just keeps wielding its rubber stamp of approval.
And what of the nineteenth application? The one that didn’t use the need to perform renovations or upgrades as an excuse? Well, that came from the Collingwood Football Club. They wanted to remove 80 poker machines from their Lilydale club, The International, and put 70 poker machines in their new Chirnside Park club, the East Ridge Club. The VCGR looked at this application, saw that there would be ten fewer pokies in the area, and gave it the all clear… despite the strenuous objections of the Yarra Ranges council.
The council were right to object. Collingwood FC estimated that by relocating most of their machines from Lilydale to Chirnside Park, just ten kilometres down Maroondah Highway, they would make an extra $4 million a year from their poker machines.
That’s because they knew the truth: it’s not how many you have, it’s where you put them. The council knew it too, but the VCGR (who have a responsibility to know this kind of detail) didn’t care.
When the concerns of local councils can be so easily and consistently ignored, then the system isn’t working. At present, the only recourse open to a local council that wants to pursue its opposition beyond the VCGR is to appeal to VCAT, which is a costly process. Many councils choose not to do this simply because of the cost.
It’s extremely disappointing that at a time when poker machine reform is on the national agenda, and local councils are growing more and more wary of the poker machines numbers within their boundaries, the VCGR continues to approve application after application with little or no apparent consideration of the objections being raised.