There have been a few notable battles waged in Victoria over the past couple of years. Unlike our northern neighbours, local councils in Victoria have (in general) grown to have a very suspicious opinion of poker machines, and new proposals and developments are carefully scrutinised. Many are opposed or rejected at the planning stage, yet go on to be approved by the VCGR and more often than not VCAT and the courts end up getting involved.
There was the landmark case of Romsey, where the locals took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and won the day, remaining pokie-free. There was the social-media-driven case of Jan Juc, where local opposition to the introduction of poker machines was successfully marshalled and directed from a Facebook group run by Jeremy Ham. Jan Juc, too, remains pokie-free.
Today saw the final chapter of another poker machine battle, no less significant than Romsey or Jan Juc. Today gambling giant Tattersalls, faced with unexpected and unrelenting opposition from the Whittlesea council and the local community, withdrew their Supreme Court appeal and signalled, finally, that they were giving up the fight to bring poker machines to Doreen’s Laurimar estate.
This is a massive result. Tattersalls have the resources at their disposal to go to court every day of the week and twice on Sundays; there aren’t many councils that can justify that kind of expense. And Tattersalls are well used to getting their own way; even though their development partners had, one by one, dropped away, they were doggedly persistent in their drive to bring poker machines to Doreen.
However, it was clear early on that they were not going to get an easy ride in this instance. It wasn’t just the Whittlesea council who were opposed to the introduction of poker machines; local resistance was fierce, and was spearheaded by the likes of Lindy Gyaw, Marlene Dillon, Felicity Leahy and of course the Rev. Glynis Dickins. There was never any doubt that the locals were keen to have Laurimar Tavern built; they just didn’t want poker machines in their community.
But perhaps the most significant victory of all lies in the fact that Tattersalls have not only backed down on their appeal, but they’ve also backed down on their threat to walk away from the development completely, which would have left the estate with no Tavern at all.
You see, as I wrote back in April, once VCAT had overturned the VCGR’s decision to grant Tattersalls permission to put poker machines in Doreen, the gambling giant spat the dummy. They hit the press, telling everyone who would listen that the future of the development was “uncertain” and that the Tavern, in its current proposed form, would not proceed. In other words, if you won’t let us put poker machines in, we’re taking our bat and our ball and going home.
And then, as I wrote back in June, they announced their intention to appeal VCAT’s decision to the Supreme Court, no doubt hoping that the council would buckle and give way. Of course, that wasn’t to be the case.
Never mind the fact that the proposed development was completely unsuitable for a young, growing area like the Laurimar estate. Tattersalls said they needed the pokies to make the Tavern financially viable, but that’s only because they wanted to build a sprawling complex rather than a tavern; they had to plan big to justify getting poker machines involved. If they’d got their way, Laurimar Tavern would have been a cafe/bistro/sports bar/lounge/double function room/TAB/gaming lounge behemoth, the kind of soulless structure that sucks the life (and the dollars) out of surrounding businesses. Completely inappropriate for a developing area full of young families.
But in this, the council played their trump card. They approved an amendment to the original development plan for the site of the Laurimar Tavern, meaning that the land could now be used for “mixed use”. And what THAT means is that rather than a sprawling function centre and gaming hotel complex, the site will now be suitable for a development including a tavern, restaurant, offices and residential space.
Far more in keeping with the local community… and not a poker machine in sight.
Faced with this amendment, Tattersalls withdrew their appeal. They no longer had a leg to stand on; they couldn’t argue that they needed poker machines to finance their development, because the scope of viable developments on the site had changed. And the word is that this new, community-friendly development will proceed, with or without Tattersalls.
You bloody ripper. You absolute, dyed-in-the-wool full-on bloody beauty.
This needs to be a precedent for future proposed poker machine developments in Victoria. For too long, developers have gone to the VCGR and said “we need these poker machines to finance our multi-million dollar project”, or “we need to upgrade our facilities, and we can only afford it if we put in some extra pokies.” This cannot be allowed to happen any more. I’ve written on several occasions about how inappropriate the proposed Laurimar Tavern was for the local community, and how they would have been much better served by a smaller, more personal and diverse development that would cost less and not require poker machines to get it built. Sure, it’s gratifying to see that this is coming to pass, but the lesson needs to be learned by those who have the authority to approve or reject these proposals in the first place.
Financing a development is not a good enough reason, on its own, to justify poker machines. It’s the lazy way out. If a hotel can’t be built without putting in poker machines to raise the money (by taking it out of the pockets of the local community) then it shouldn’t be built at all. There are other ways of raising finance, which is something many developers seem to have forgotten. What they HAVEN’T forgotten is that once the building is complete, and the loans are paid off, those poker machines will keep making them millions of dollars every year… and that’s the real bottom line.
But for now, it’s enough to know that in a couple of years, the people of Doreen will have a “local” to call their own, where they can meet, have a drink or a meal… and not have to put up with poker machines. Yes… for now, that’s enough.