Warrnambool's strange bid to ban pokies

WITH an impassioned plea to blow up the city’s pokies, Warrnambool councillors are like the charming drunk whispering sweet nothings in your ear.

But as they face the cold, hard truth of actually delivering on their promise, panic has set in as to what path their moral crusade will follow.

Cr Michael Neoh is the first to show signs of realising the council overstepped the mark, considering whether to withdraw the bold declaration of banning pokies while legal advice is sought.

It may be a backflip — he did vote for the motion, along with all his colleagues, only this week — but at least it faces up to reality. While emotion can win the battle in the council chambers, it will take a rock-solid legal argument to win the war.

The council has now committed to policy on the run and, as mayor Jacinta Ermacora admits, is yet to map out its course.

The timing of Monday night’s decision was odd, given just six months ago the council voted in a revised ‘responsible gaming policy’ that made no mention of its vendetta against pokies.

The document — which opposes an increase in machine numbers but does not rule out new venues nor challenge the status of the city’s 234 machines — is now in tatters.

The pokies climate hasn’t changed since then — Beaumont Investments had already been connected with Rafferty’s, having bought its allocation of 19 machines at state government auctions in 2010.

With entitlements for 270 machines bought for relatively high prices, Warrnambool’s cap of 234 machines was always going to be tested.

The council had an opportunity to declare its hand in April but failed to do so.

It also chose not to oppose Beaumont’s bid with the Victorian Commission for Gambling Regulation.

It did not even lodge a submission following survey results that showed a majority of people (53 per cent) supported it, compared to a third who were against it.

“The community has indicated that they would rather have the Rafferty’s redevelopment with poker machines, than not have it at all,” chief executive officer Bruce Anson said at the time.

The feedback was enough for the council’s planning department to recommend approving the Rafferty’s development stating: “In the absence of opposition from the community, it is difficult to argue that there will be any adverse impacts on community well-being.”

For a council battling perceptions that it doesn’t consult enough, rejecting the public’s advice is a baffling move.

There is no doubt there is a relatively high number of poker machines — at 36 per cent higher than the state average, any moves to restrict their growth should be applauded. But to call for a ban when pokies are a state responsibility and they have reaped a large amount of money from the sale of allocations just last year?

As state gaming minister Michael O’Brien said any suggestion that pokies can be banned is “fanciful”.

But for a council plagued by internal wrangling and legal controversies, it is at least a welcome distraction.

It was just last Saturday The Standard revealed that Cr Jennifer Lowe had been suspended for a month, as a high-profile criminal fraud case looms large.

The action over Cr Peter Hulin’s part in a leaking scandal will soon be decided on by the other councillors, who could take him to VCAT and see him stood down from his role for six months.

There has been little talk of those developments following Monday night’s shock decision.

As Kenny Rogers sang in The Gambler, you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.

The council needs to clearly explain to ratepayers why it is going all-in on this issue and how it expects to win the hand, before it sends us all bust.

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