the pokies of whittlesea – strange things are afoot

There’s been some coverage in the media recently about the Laurimar Tavern in Doreen, in the City of Whittlesea. Essentially, the Laurimar Tavern has been approved by the VCGR for 40 poker machines, despite the objections of residents and the local council.

Understandably, this has made a lot of people very unhappy. The VCGR’s decision, which was made back in March 2010, has been appealed and will go to VCAT in February 2011; and the residents driving the push to keep pokies out of Doreen have organised a public meeting today (the 12th of September) for locals to voice their concerns and provide feedback for the upcoming VCAT appeal.

This is bad enough, but it also serves to highlight the fact that Whittlesea has a major problem with the pokies, on several levels.

Let’s start with the council. The Whittlesea City Council, according to the information available on their website, does not have a formalised problem gambling or poker machine policy. Granted, they do have a “local charter for responsible gaming” but this is voluntary, and is now ten years old. What this means is that regardless of the best intentions of the council, and individual councillors in particular, there is no formalised framework or strategy for the council to follow with regards to pokies within the city boundaries. This can only undermine their position when they do voice objections to proposed developments.

Then there’s the distribution of machines. Whittlesea is subject to a partial regional cap on pokies, which essentially means that the southernmost area of the city is limited to 581 machines. This covers the suburbs of Epping, Lalor, Thomastown, Mill Park and Bundoora. Guess what? Eight of Whittlesea’s existing nine venues are located within this cap, and between them they have 581 pokies. The regional cap is full.

What’s more, as I spoke about in my post about regional caps, four of these venues are in the top ten earning venues in the state. Last financial year, the Plough Hotel took in $18,974,503.13 (ranked 2nd), the Epping Plaza Hotel took in $18,867,108.81 (ranked 3rd), the Bundoora Taverner took in $18,092,887.68 (ranked 7th) and the Excelsior Hotel took in $17,390,511.66 (ranked 9th). Looks like the Whittlesea regional cap is really working to prevent harm to those who need it most. Hmmm.

Next, let’s look at Whittlesea as a whole. Last financial year, spending in the City of Whittlesea reached $94,451,837.62. That ranks them as the 7th highest pokie-losing area in the state, and the 6th highest spenders… adults in Whittlesea spend an average of $858.44 on the pokies every year, $170 more than the metropolitan average.

So given the high losses and top-grossing venues, you’d think that Whittlesea was an area not in danger of poker machine expansion. Think again.

Let’s talk about the Bridge Inn Hotel in Mernda. Back in March 2008, the VCGR knocked back an application by the Bridge Inn for 60 gaming machines. The major sticking points were: that the Bridge Inn would be very much part of Mernda’s retail area; many Mernda residents could face financial hardship if they over-extended themselves at a new local venue; the expected revenue for the Bridge Inn was likely to be much higher than estimated in the application; Whittlesea already had significantly-above-average levels of pokie spending; and the application did not include the possibility of relocating some pokies from the regionally-capped area to the south.

These are all good points, and it’s nice to see the VCGR doing their job for once. But fast-forward 15 months… and a subsequent application for 40 gaming machines was approved, in July 2009. So what changed? There were fewer machines, and the application indicated they would try and source some of them from within Whittlesea, meaning a smaller increase in pokie numbers… but that’s it. Looks like a case of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Then there’s the Royal Mail Hotel. Located in the Whittlesea township, the Royal Mail is after 30 pokies. They also have an application with the VCGR, but it’s been adjourned for the moment.

It’s worth noting that Benmara Pty Ltd, which owns both the Bridge Inn and the Royal Mail, bought 70 gaming machine entitlements at the recent auction. This covers the requested machine numbers at both venues. They’re certainly expecting to get their approvals!

And now, we come back to the Laurimar Tavern. As I said, they’ve been approved for 40 pokies by the VCGR. Why, then, did they purchase 80 gaming entitlements at the recent auction? This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by the council and the local media, but it’s likely that if the Laurimar Tavern decides to expand, and gets VCGR approval, there’s very little they’ll be able to do about it.

It’s a mess. Whittlesea is one area that spends a lot on the pokies, and can least afford to. The last thing they need is more pokies and more venues, but that’s exactly what’s on the horizon.

The icing on this particularly unappetising cake is the fact that our new PM, Julia Gillard, is the Federal member for Lalor. Yes, these pokie shenanigans are happening in and around our prime minister’s electorate. And while I applaud Ms Gillard’s decision to tackle pre-commitment technology for pokies as part of her deal with Andrew Wilkie, the fact remains that her hand was forced. She, and her party, had no plans to tackle problem gambling before the election left them with little choice.

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6 Responses

  1. I concur re Gillard Cyenne! I now wonder just what will happen to ‘force’ her hand back to where it was placed originally…over her ears and eyes!

    If Julia Gillard is genuine in her claim that she has always been concerned about poker machines…so apparently welcomed pre-commit agreements with Wilkie (that we were led to understand in her speeches after the Wilkie intevention and agreement, was a move she approved of completely)then she had better stick to her moral guns to clean up her own electorate first! It has been walked over for too long, too tragically.

  2. David says:

    Looking forward to the Tavern opening in Laurimar. Would be nice to walk and have a social drink and if I want to spend some money at the pokies that’s my business.

  3. Anthony says:

    So the pokies in Laurimar are definitely still going ahead? We were thinking of buying in the estate, but a new pokies venue is too much of a risk – socially and with respect to property prices.

    Good luck to the residents – hope it doesn’t trash the neighbourhood too badly!

  4. admin says:

    Anthony, at this stage they’re approved. There is an appeal to VCAT to overturn the VCGR’s decision (in February 2011) but from my experience, it’s unlikely to succeed.

  5. Tony says:

    Why couldnt it succeed. The residents of Romsey won against the pokies there.

  6. cyenne says:

    Tony, absolutely it COULD succeed, and I truly hope it does. Romsey won their case (although they had to go to the supreme court) and set a benchmark that’s being followed in Laurimar and other places such as Jan Juc.

    I just think it’s more likely that VCAT will uphold the venue approval. Whittlesea already has pokies, so they’re not being introduced to a Local Government Area that is pokie-free. Laurimar doesn’t have a local venue, although the Bridge Inn is not too far away. And Laurimar is a growing area that could use a local pub… but the Laurimar Tavern won’t go ahead without the pokies.

    Add all that up and I think VCAT will find in favour of the venue. I really, really hope I’m wrong.

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