By Rowan Forster
Anti-gambling campaigners locked in a David and Goliath battle before the state’s planning umpire have touted the withdrawal of 80 proposed poker machines in Officer as a milestone victory.
On Friday, 21 December, the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal received a request from Station Hotel proponent Tim Rice to terminate the proceedings.
The move came as a shock development in the 21-month saga, which saw the proposed premises rejected by both Cardinia Shire Council and the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation.
Mr Rice was fighting in VCAT to have the aforementioned rulings overturned when he instead opted to pull the application.
However, it may only serve as a short-term reprieve for the defiant detractors – with the Berwick businessman indicating the battle is far from over.
Mr Rice has since told the Gazette that the withdrawal was a “strategic move”, given the impending Officer Precinct Structure Plan.
He claims the PSP, due to be handed down in 2019, could further strengthen the case for a licensed hotel and gambling venue in Officer.
It came just days after anti-gambling campaigners took to King Street for a public hearing – lambasting the proposal.
Resident Andrew McNabb, who spoke before the tribunal, argued that the new pokies would cause crime, domestic violence and self-harm to spike across the region.
When he learnt of the outcome, Mr McNabb was ecstatic.
“These things cause family violence, poverty, crime and drug and alcohol abuse and they aren’t acceptable in our community,” he said.
“When I was informed, I had to read it twice – I was shocked.
“Not only is this a huge win, but it has set a precedent across Victoria.
“It’s a great victory for the community and it just goes to show what people power can accomplish.”
Detractors maintain that they are not opposed to the proposed new venue in the heart of Officer, just the addition of the pokies.
According to VCGLR statistics, punters splurged more than $26 million on poker machines within the Cardinia Shire municipality last year.
The community’s fight was bolstered by campaign group Bad Bets Australia, which spearheaded an aggressive crusade against Mr Rice and the proposal.
While the group’s tactics were labelled by some as “controversial” and “excessive”, they proved to be successful.
In one instance, Bad Bets’ Rohan Wenn erected a billboard beside the Princes Highway, Officer, with a caption reading: Will you be bashed, will you be robbed, will you take your own life?”
Head of the Alliance for Gambling Reform Tim Costello even expressed concerns with the facility, citing its close proximity to schools.
“Creating a new venue with 80 pokies within two kilometres of 12 schools and child care centres was rightly rejected by the Cardinia shire councillors and the VCGLR, so that should be the end of the matter,” he said.
The matter was being heard by VCAT when it was suddenly withdrawn by the proponent.
Hearings set to take place in January and February, 2019 will be cancelled.