Councillors in Wangaratta have overruled the recommendation of staff and controversially allowed the RSL to increase the number of pokie machines at its new premises from 32 to 50.
Despite the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation approving the increase, council staff chose to stick with their initial belief, that the bigger venue could be “an encouragement of gambling persistence and monetary loss”.
Cr Dean Rees moved the amendment to allow 50 machines and was supported by Crs Harry Bussel, Dave Fuller and Mark Currie.
“This is not just a good investment for the RSL club, this is a great thing for Wangaratta, we need this development to go ahead. Wangaratta is falling down on a number of things and this is a thing to get it going again,” Cr Rees said.
Mayor Ken Clake was excused from the debate because he had a conflict as a former RSL sub-branch secretary and deputy mayor Harvey Benton did not join the debate, so only Cr Ruth Amery voted against the increase to 50 machines.
“Public opinion is that to allow for the proposed application with its increase in electronic gaming machines to proceed would be detrimental to the vulnerable members of our community,” she said.
Wangaratta RSL senior vice president Andrew Kay was given a round of applause from the gallery when he spoke to councillors and questioned if council staff had a bias or wanted the decision to be made with emotion rather the facts.
“It’s been a very long, hard road for us to get here,” he said. “Problem gambling is an issue, it is 0.7 per cent of the population.
“Do we have a right to preclude 99 per cent of the community in engaging in a legitimate, legal activity?”
Council chief executive Brendan McGrath said the recommendation was made due to a concern about the negative impact gambling has on some people and families.
“The question is how do we strike a balance between letting organisations like you do the good work you do and also trying to provide some form of protection for people who perhaps aren’t in the best position to be making decisions about their own lives,” he said.
Councillors ultimately passed the RSL’s overall planning permit to develop the old Sydney Hotel as its new base, including the installation of two business signs, issuing a full club licence, dismantling the unused bottle shop and a reduction in car parking.
Meanwhile, Wangaratta Council has offered staff a revised enterprise bargaining agreement, including an improved maintenance allowance and agreement “all disciplinary matters” to be referred to Fair Work Australia.
Mr McGrath said the revised offer had been developed after an all-staff survey.
“We have listened to everyone as part of negotiations and tried to make a fair offer,” he said.
“The union provides a strong voice around the negotiating table but in reality, the majority of our staff are not in the union and we need to ensure the voices of all staff are being heard.”
The revised agreement was presented to staff on Tuesday, with voting to take place soon.