Casey Council Votes To Oppose More Pokies For Berwick

*note: this article has been updated to reflect the official minutes of the Casey Council meeting 18 July 2017*

In a stunning turnaround, Casey Council tonight ignored their own recommendation and voted unanimously TO OPPOSE more poker machines at Zagame’s Berwick Springs hotel.

Casey Council meeting tonight

Here’s the background. In May of this year, Zagame’s gave notice of an application for 10 additional poker machines. They already had 95; they wanted to increase that to the maximum possible figure of 105.

Now, I’ve opposed this from the outset. I’m a resident of Berwick and I don’t want more machines in my town. Besides, as I’ve pointed out before, Zagame’s Berwick Springs is already the biggest pokies venue in Casey and the 10th biggest pokies pub in the state, raking in $16.5 million in poker machine losses annually. The list of reasons why this was a bad idea just kept getting longer.

I spoke to the local press (here and here) and started a petition calling for no more poker machines in Berwick. About this time the Alliance for Gambling Reform asked to get involved and things started to gather speed; we ended up submitting a petition to Casey Council with almost 300 signatures and a number of supporters joined me in making submissions to the council asking them to oppose the application.

The closing date for submissions to council came and went; 34 submissions were made in total and of those, only 2 were in favour of the application. The vast majority were fiercely opposed. And yet, when Casey Council released their agenda for tonight’s meeting, which included considering their response to the Zagame’s application, their recommendation was “not to oppose” the application.

So it was with some trepidation that I turned up to tonight’s council meeting to witness firsthand what their decision would be. I knew I wouldn’t be able to take part in the meeting but I simply had to be there to see what would happen.

The evening wore on, and finally the council came to item 6.24 – the Zagame’s poker machine application. Mayor Sam Aziz began introducing the council position… and this is where things began to deviate from the script. Cr Tim Jackson stood and suggested he propose an alternative motion, that rather than “not opposing” the application, the council should make it clear that they do, in fact, OPPOSE the application.

I held my breath. Local councils don’t have the power to actively approve or reject poker machine applications; that falls to the VCGLR. But what they CAN do is state their position, which the VCGLR considers when making their ruling.

If, as Cr Jackson proposed, Casey Council voted to oppose the application, it would send a strong message to the VCGLR. And that is a BIG deal.

Cr Jackson spoke at length of the money lost in Casey to poker machines, and at the Zagame’s venue in particular. He quoted figures, many of which I recognised from my own submission to council. And he went on to point out that a number of late submissions had been received, all opposed to the application… which meant that all in all, 85% of submissions received by council in this matter were opposed. He said that if the community felt so strongly about this matter, then the council should listen.

Cr Susan Serey then stood and pointed out that they had earlier voted on the Casey Municipal Public Health and Wellbeing plan, which included provisions for mental health and reducing harm caused by gambling. She said they couldn’t very well support the plan and then refuse to oppose the introduction of more poker machines into the area.

Cr Rosalie Crestani stood and stated her agreement with the positions put forward by Crs Jackson and Serey. By this time I was actually starting to believe that something might come of this!

Cr Gary Rowe stood and pointed out that the poker machine cap for the area where Zagame’s was located was 1017 machines, and that at present there were only 200 or so machines operational in that area. Despite this, he said, he supported Cr Jackson’s proposed alternative motion.

(It’s worth pointing out that Cr Rowe didn’t tell the whole story. There are two different poker machine caps in the City of Casey, covering different areas, and the reality is that there are over 900 poker machines in Casey.)

There was more discussion, focussing on how much the council thought Zagame’s should donate annually to charity if the VCGLR did end up approving their application, but in the end the vote was unanimous. Casey Council voted TO OPPOSE the Zagame’s application.

Casey Council’s decision to oppose the Zagames application was carried.

This is huge; a significant step in the fight to shut this application down. The council’s position will be communicated to the VCGLR, along with all of the submissions they received, and a hearing date will be set. The end is a long way off, but this is why it is so important to get individuals and communities involved in fighting applications such as this. It was made abundantly clear that alongside all of the evidence provided to council by myself and others about the social harms poker machines cause, it was the volume of submissions in opposition that helped change their minds.

It seems people power is still a thing after all.

Read about the outcome in the Berwick Star News.

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