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After Record Earnings, Woolworths in Legal Fight to Add Pokies

Thu, Aug 10, 10:47am by Staff Writer

After reaping $669 million in revenue from its Victorian pokie operations during the 2015-16 fiscal year, Woolworths is attempting to add more machines in the state.

But just over one year after announcing plans to install 40 pokies within the Commercial Hotel, a heritage site located in South Morang, the company is facing stiff opposition from community members and opponents of gambling expansion.

In July of 2016, news broke that the Australian Leisure and Hospitality Group (ALHG) submitted an application to the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR), seeking approval for the addition.

Today, that application is still pending, as councilors for the City of Whittlesea have opposed the proposal at every turn. The Council’s rejections eventually prompted Woolworths to file suit in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal, as the company seeks to supersede the community’s wider objections.

Speaking on behalf of the Alliance for Gambling Reform (AGR), anti-pokie activist Stephen Mayne told ABC News that Whittlesea residents simply won’t accept additional machines:

“[Woolworths] are not happy with their current 81 venues across Victoria.

They’re in [the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal] courts trying to add to their portfolio to inject even more misery.

The Whittlesea community and the council are fighting tooth and nail to say, ‘enough Woolworths, take your misery elsewhere.’”

When the initial application was submitted last year, Susan Rennie – who serves as an adviser on gambling harm prevention for Victorian Primary Care Partnerships (VPCP) – told the Herald Sun that Woolworths already owned over 300 machines in the Whittlesea area:

“Woolworths venues already take over $50 million in pokies losses from Whittlesea, they don’t need more.

This is money which will leave our neighborhood and won’t come back.”

According to Rennie’s accounting, Woolworth’s operation of 305 pokies within the Mill Park’s Plough Hotel, the Bundoora Hotel, and the Excelsior Hotel in Thomastown was responsible for nearly 50 percent of the $111 million Whittlesea gamblers lost on pokies over the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Overall, residents of Victoria lost over $2.6 billion while playing on the state’s assortment of more than 26,300 pokies – and those figures don’t take Crown Casino into account. Numbers like these prompted the Victorian government to institute a “freeze” on pokie licenses earlier this month, capping the number of machines in the state at 27,372 until the year 2042.

James Merlino, who serves as Acting Minister for Gaming and Liquor Regulation in Victoria, issued a statement announcing the freeze – and defending pokie loss reporting as overblown:

“The figures show that state-wide player loss on gaming machines has actually declined from where it was last year.

Earlier this month, we announced major reforms on gaming machines – including a freeze on the total number of pokies in Victoria for the next 25 years.”

Even so, the pokie licenses granted during the next round of appointments in 2022 will remain valid for 20 years – which doubles the current lifespan.

As Deakin University gambling researcher Professor Samantha Thomas told ABC News, the row in Whittlesea is emblematic of Victoria’s growing opposition to pokie placement:

“That’s the community standing up and saying they want a reduction in losses and harms associated with these machines.

It’s not good enough to say we’ll keep the number of machines the same over the next 20 years or so. We have to look at significant harm-prevention strategies which reduce the number of machines and make them less acceptable in the community.

Ultimately [we need to] not only reduce the financial harms but the social harms associated with these machines.”

Asked for comment by ABC News, Woolworths declined to address the Commercial Hotel impasse.

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