When I’m not playing with my kids, or blogging about gambling shenanigans, I work in Melbourne’s CBD. My trip to work takes me to Southern Cross station, and past the construction site of the Mail Exchange Hotel on Bourke St.
This morning, I noticed that it wasn’t a construction site any more. The signs were lit, the doors were open and there was a bouncer standing out the front. Big guy too. The Mail Exchange Hotel was open for business… just after 8 in the morning. And what sort of business does a hotel partake in at 8 in the morning in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD?
There’s only one answer to that question: poker machines. I already knew this, but as I walked past I glanced inside, and there they were, in full view from the street. There’s a new gambling hole in town.
So what qualifies the Mail Exchange for my Sneaky Bastards File? A few things, although I should say up front it’s not just them. Rather, it’s the way that they, and Tattersalls, went about gaining their gambling licence and approval for their 80 machines that earns them this dubious honour.
Let me start with this snippet from the VCGR decision to approve the original application. The Melbourne City Council was engaged and took a long hard look at the submission, and decided not to oppose it. One of the reasons was:
…the venue will be largely obscured from view at street level…
I can categorically state that this is not the case. The gaming room is on a sub-level, and as I walked past, I could see through the doors and down into the gaming area. Poker machines in full view.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Melbourne City Council, while they may deliberate extensively over gaming applications, do not actually have a gambling policy in place. In this, they lag behind most other local government areas, and yet they are largely uncapped when it comes to poker machine numbers. It doesn’t seem to make sense.
Let’s move on to the process of the application itself. On the face of it, this seemed quite simple. The application was for 80 machines in the revamped Mail Exchange Hotel, and was represented by Tattersalls (who would provide the machines) and the Robertson Group (who, through their subsidiary companies, were behind the hotel redevelopment). The proposal was for Tattersalls to remove 83 machines from other Tattersalls venues in the CBD, and place 80 of them in the Mail Exchange. Two of these venues, the Oasis Oz Hotel and the Shanghai Club Hotel, would cease operations as gambling venues. With a nett result of three fewer machines and one less venue in the CBD, it looked like a winning proposition.
You can only imagine the VCGR’s surprise when they discovered that no one had told the Oasis Oz or the Shanghai Club about this.
That’s right. Tattersalls planned to remove all of the pokies from both of these venues, and hadn’t told them. They freely admitted it to the VCGR. More than that, they defended the decision by saying that, in the event that the Mail Exchange application was unsuccessful, they didn’t want to harm their relationships with these other venues.
Now, I’m certainly no gambling apologist, but even I think it’s a little brutal to rip all pokies out of a couple of venues, without warning. Tattersalls were unrepentant, but thankfully the VCGR stood their ground. They adjourned the hearing so as to allow the proprietors of both establishments under threat to be informed and take part in the process. They also wanted to make sure that Tabcorp pokies wouldn’t be used to fill the gap left by the removal of the Tattersalls machines, and told Tattersalls and the Robertson Group representatives that they would contact Tabcorp to confirm this.
Mark Robertson, director of the Robertson Group, decided not to wait. He contacted Tabcorp himself, and the next thing the VCGR knew, they were receiving a letter from Tabcorp confirming that they wouldn’t supply machines to either the Oasis Oz or the Shanghai Club. Guess it didn’t hurt that Robertson also ran a number of venues with Tabcorp pokies.
More sessions and adjournments followed. The proprietors of the Shanghai Club and the Oasis Oz were brought in on the proceedings and they were, shall we say, less than impressed by what was going on. Eventually, however, they came to an agreement with Robertson. The Oasis Oz agreed to lose their pokies; the Shanghai Club agreed to lose only half of theirs. Tattersalls and the Robertson Group organised to source the rest of their machines from other venues around town, and the application was approved.
The entire proceedings were conducted by Tattersalls and, to a lesser extent, the Robertson Group, with a fundamental lack of regard for the people who would be affected by their plans… and that’s not even considering the gamblers. The Shanghai Club Hotel was undergoing renovations, on the understanding that they could afford to because of their pokie revenue. Given the circumstances, that hotel would have been forced to close its doors.
It’s situations like this that make me thankful that Tattersalls and Tabcorp will be removed from the industry in 2012.
Let me close on this note. On my way home this evening, I dropped in to the Mail Exchange and took a look around. No matter how they try to represent themselves as a social hotel, or a dining experience, the truth of the matter is that this is a gambling den. The machines are the first thing you see when you walk in; and the doors open daily at 7am, just in time to drain the hardcore gamblers out of the peak hour rush from Southern Cross station. As I walked around, examining the warning signs attached to the machines and reading the information screens that didn’t exist when I was a problem gambler, it struck me that 11 years ago, I would have been thrilled, and a little disturbed, by the opening of this venue. Lying between my workplace and my station, it would have become my new venue of choice.
That still disturbs me now.