3 July 2023

Clubs to become emergency refuges but gambling harm concerns remain

| Claire Fenwicke
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Fire, Smoke, Burning, Orroral Valley fire, Tharwa Bridge

Smoke from the Orroral Valley bushfire impacted the health of many Canberrans during Black Summer. Photo: Gary Hooker.

Another alternative for Canberrans escaping extreme heat and smoke has opened up, with the ACT Government passing a law to allow community clubs to offer refuge.

Under the new law, suitable clubs can be declared as refuges during an emergency or other hazards, giving people the chance to find respite and relief during events such as bushfires.

Gaming Minister Shane Rattenbury said clubs had been identified as an option as they had longer opening hours than other refuge options, such as libraries or shopping centres.

“These venues provide our community with access to climate-controlled spaces that aren’t always available in homes,” he said.

“By allowing community clubs to become heat and smoke refuges, Canberrans will have access to nearby respite, no matter which side of the lake they live on.”

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While an emergency declaration is in force, clubs will be entitled to claim some expenses if being used as a refuge.

It’s expected the framework will be in place in time for the 2023/24 bushfire season, with work now underway to identify suitable locations.

The law also contains requirements that clubs acting as refuges must have the sheltering area separate from both gaming machines and alcohol, provide information about alternative refuges, and have Gambling Contact Officers present.

“We’re living through a climate change emergency, and it is critical that we make refuges available for the community during extreme events such as heat waves and bushfires,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“It’s especially important for vulnerable Canberrans who may be at a greater risk of heat stress or breathing difficulties.”

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But concerns remain over whether it’s appropriate for the government to be directing people to clubs during extreme smoke and heat events.

Murrumbidgee MLA Dr Marisa Paterson argued the risk of gambling harm was heightened during an emergency, with research showing people were more likely to gamble and drink excessively when anxious or depressed.

She cited research that suggested about 10 per cent of the ACT’s adult population experience some form of gambling harm, while another 5 per cent had been personally affected by family members gambling.

“So we’re talking about some 50,000 adults that are significantly impacted by gambling, and we are endorsing sending them to a club at a time of high stress,” Dr Paterson said.

“The intent of this policy is to provide smoke and heat refuge to the most vulnerable in our community who do not have appropriate cooling or air ventilation in their homes.

“So what we are doing here is sending the most vulnerable liquor and gaming venues at the most risky times after hours.”

She also didn’t agree that the onus should be on clubs to let individuals know about other refuge options, and that the law could discriminate against those people who were voluntarily excluding themselves from gaming venues, as they wouldn’t be able to access the refuge.

“I think the clubs should have remained a place of choice for Canberrans to go, not a government-declared refuge,” Dr Paterson said.

“And I think we could have done a lot better in how we set this up to minimise harm, it is a significantly missed opportunity.”

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Sounds like a great idea to me. In 2003 when forced out of our home by giant flames across the road, the four of us (and a dog) landed on the front door of our relatives’ modest sized home in Queanbeyan. Of course they took us in. I don’t know where else we could have gone. I am not as sure why “community clubs” would require compensation for expenses, given they already receive major tax and other benefits from the community. Our relatives didn’t ask for costs.

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