An ACT Greens plan to provide incentives for a network of pokie-free clubs around Canberra has the potential to wipe out community clubs and treats Canberrans like children, according to two people at the forefront of the industry in the ACT.
Greens leader Shane Rattenbury and their gaming-harm spokesperson Rebecca Vassarotti said their as yet uncosted plan offers a range of supports to enable clubs to increase their links with the community by encouraging more clubs to become pokie-free.
However, Vikings Group CEO Anthony Hill and ClubsACT CEO Gwyn Rees both told Region Media the Greens’ proposal is harmful to an industry that has had to rely on diversification measures and JobKeeper payments to keep their doors open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Greens’ policy, announced on Thursday (10 September), seeks to further reduce clubs’ reliance on the “rivers of gold” from poker machines as a source of revenue while also reducing the risk of problem gambling throughout many suburban community clubs.
The measures in the policy include subsidies for clubs to be leased to community organisations, upgrades to kitchens and better acoustics to enable more live music in the clubs.
Mr Rattenbury said their plan would also bring the number of poker machines down to 3000, from a commitment of 4000 during the 2016 term of government.
“The Greens want our community clubs to not only survive, but thrive. Relying on problem gamblers to gamble away their livelihoods is a broken business model and just not sustainable,” Mr Rattenbury said.
“While the COVID-19 pokies switch-off was a welcome relief for people experiencing gambling harm, it also caused significant financial hardship to many clubs. This is a moment for us to decide what is important about our community clubs.”
Vikings Clubs CEO Anthony Hill said the COVID-19 restrictions only moved the problem to online gambling, where a number of studies have found a dramatic increase in online gambling.
“We saw online gaming increase during COVID and we also saw people go across the border to NSW. Two myths the Greens kept denying were proven,” Mr Hill said.
“The prohibition of poker machines doesn’t work and this proposal is treating Canberrans like they’re children.”
Mr Hill also said there has been minimal consultation over the proposal and the Vikings’ 51 affiliated clubs in Canberra have already had to dip into a diversification fund that was established about 15 years ago to reduce their reliance on income from poker machine revenue.
During that time, more than 15 clubs have closed, along with five during the current parliamentary term.
ClubsACT CEO Gwyn Rees said clubs have worked hard to diversify their businesses and reach the goal set of fewer than 15 machines per 1000 people.
“ACT clubs thought they had done the heavy lifting expected of them this political term, but it seems every time we reach the top of the mountain, the Greens roll the boulder back down,” Mr Rees said.
“Yet, this plan, particularly on the back of the hardships caused by COVID, will drive many clubs to bankruptcy and will certainly impact on their ability to provide free, subsidised and financial support to local sporting and community organisations.
“It will cost many hundreds of jobs, particularly for young people who make up our club sector. It will cost even more jobs along our supply chain.
“If Minister Rattenbury truly believes there is a river of gold, I would suggest it will be flowing through Queanbeyan.”
Mr Rees also said an Australian National University report to the ACT Government on how clubs were surviving in Western Australia without poker machines had not been tabled because it did not contain favourable information.
However, the Greens’ gaming-harm spokesperson Rebecca Vassarotti said the community expects action to reduce the level of gambling harm in the community.
“We want Canberrans to enjoy more clubs with no pokies. Our comprehensive package means working with our local community to make our local clubs a safer, more connected place for everyone to enjoy – a place where kids can play, families and friends can get together, without the presence of pokies,” Ms Vassarotti said.
An ACT Labor spokesperson said their offer to compensate venues for surrendering poker machines would stand if re-elected, while many venues had already lowered the number of poker machines.
The Canberra Liberals said the Greens’ proposal would be the “death-knell for many community clubs”.