second time lucky in bendigo

The City of Greater Bendigo is hoping for a case of second-time-lucky, as once more their commitment to keeping more pokies out of Bendigo is put to the test.

The council of the City of Greater Bendigo is one of Victoria’s local councils that takes problem gambling and poker machines very seriously. Their gaming policy, while a few years old, is strongly focussed on ensuring that gaming venues are “accessible but not convenient”, and they have an oft-spoken commitment to halting the spread of poker machines throughout the district. They have identified areas that should be prohibited from poker machine development, and mapped out their direction in great detail. Sadly, however, the laws of the state make all of this somewhat pointless.

When it comes to poker machines, the Greater Bendigo council is as powerless as every other local council in Victoria. That’s not their fault, but it’s the residents of Bendigo that are counting the cost.

Earlier this year, Bendigo council and the Foundry Hotel went to VCAT; the council to appeal the VCGR’s decision to grant a 30-poker-machine gaming licence to the Foundry, and the hotel to appeal the council’s decision to reject their application for planning permission. VCAT handed down their decision in April, and the Foundry got their way.

I wrote about this at the time; unless you have deep pockets, the appeal system involving VCAT and the High Court is prohibitively expensive. The council had made a stand by refusing the support the Foundry’s application to the VCGR, and by rejecting their application for planning permission; but they weren’t confident of having VCAT’s decision overturned, and so they caved in.

Just one month later, in May, history began repeating itself. Bendigo Stadium, already home to 75 poker machines, lodged an application with the VCGR for another 30 pokies, which would bring their total to 105 machines… the maximum allowed to any venue in Victoria. At the same time, they lodged an application for approval with the council, hoping for their support with the VCGR.

Bendigo Stadium used the tactic that has recently proved so successful with poker machine applications. They tied their application in to a $9 million redevelopment of their facilities, and signalled quite strongly that without the poker machines, the development would not proceed. The council weren’t moved by this; they stuck to their guns and rejected the application at a council meeting in June, deciding instead to formally oppose the Stadium’s plans with the VCGR.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this decision, although most of that came from those involved with the Bendigo Stadium complex. Eventually, however, the VCGR held their hearing on the application, and did what they always seem to do… they said yes. It didn’t matter that the council had a long-standing commitment to preventing further expansion of poker machines, and had officially opposed the application; the VCGR ignored all of this and, at the start of September, stamped the application as approved.

The authority and position of the Greater Bendigo council had, once more, been ignored. But they’re not done yet.

Permission to have more poker machines was only half of the battle for Bendigo Stadium; they also need council approval on their application for planning permission, as the Foundry did before them. And as The Bendigo Advertiser reported this morning, that application was last night rejected by the council.

This is all sounding horribly familiar. The next logical step will be another trip to VCAT, with the council again appealing the VCGR’s decision, and Bendigo Stadium seeking to have their planning permission approved. But this time, there’s a wildcard.

This time, the locals are making some noise of their own. There have been 88 objections to the Bendigo Stadium development, and specifically to the introduction of additional poker machines.

And VCAT has a history of listening to these types of objections. In Romsey and Jan Juc, the involvement of locals made a massive difference in the fight to remain pokie-free, while last year in Preston, all it took was one individual’s objection, sensibly constructed and well made, to overturn the VCGR’s decision regarding the Stolberg Beer Cafe hotel.

Maybe this time, the council and the people of the City of Greater Bendigo will get their way.

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