By Colin MacGillivray
A WAR of words has erupted between Mitchell Shire community leaders and Wallan’s Hogan’s Hotel after the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal upheld a decision to allow 20 extra gaming machines at the hotel.
In 2019, the Victorian Commission for Gaming and Liquor Regulation granted the hotel an amendment to its licence allowing it to increase the number of gaming machines on the premises from 45 to 65.
Mitchell Shire Council launched a VCAT challenge to the commission’s decision after community members and groups including Wallan Gateway Church, Victorian Local Governance Association and Nexus Primary Health, opposed the hotel’s plans.
An economist submitted an analysis on behalf of council estimating 20 extra gaming machines would leave the Wallan community between $1.2 million and $2.3 million worse off each year, but VCAT members disagreed, claiming there would be a ‘net neutral impact’.
The tribunal found positive economic and social factors, such as a plan to redevelop the hotel to accommodate the new machines and the employment of additional staff, neutralised the negative impacts of problem gambling and poor community attitudes.
VCAT placed conditions on the hotel’s permit requiring it to contribute $100,000 annually to local not-for-profit groups and sporting organisations, as well as a two-hour reduction in its gaming licence from 3am to 1am.
Mitchell Shire Mayor Rhonda Sanderson said councillors were ‘bitterly disappointed and concerned with the VCAT decision’.
“Council is concerned about the harmful impacts of poker machines on the community – we see this decision as a backwards step,” she said.
“Even before the dramatic impacts of COVID-19 were felt, Mitchell Shire residents collectively lost an average of $51,900 on pokies per day over the 2018-19 financial year.
“Following community meetings and the evidence we submitted to the case, it is clear our residents do not want more pokies in our community.”
But Hogan’s Hotel owner Jim Hogan said the VCAT decision vindicated the hotel’s position.
Mr Hogan described council’s VCAT challenge as ‘disgraceful’.
“Council couldn’t dispute the low degree of problem gambling in Wallan,” he said.
“It’s disgraceful that the council wasted ratepayers’ dollars trying to stop a legal redevelopment of the hotel.
“I call on the shire to disclose the total amount spent on lawyers and consultants opposing the redevelopment at both the gaming commission and VCAT.
“The councillors should compensate the ratepayers for these exorbitant costs.”
Mr Hogan said the extra gaming machines would be ‘a massive win’ for Wallan and the Mitchell Shire community.
“We will now progress on a $3 million redevelopment which will encourage local trades to tender – new works include a new fine-dining restaurant and new cafe lounge/wine bar,” he said.
“Community donations will increase from $55,000 to $100,000 per annum [and] we will increase employment and will seek extra bar staff, wait staff, chefs and apprentices.”
Nexus Primary Health chief executive Amanda Mullins said she was dismayed by the VCAT decision.
“Nexus Primary Health is deeply saddened in the decision to allow for more machines to be installed at Hogan’s in Wallan,” she said.
“On a daily basis, our team of financial counsellors deal with the impact these machines have on Mitchell Shire residents and their ability to thrive.
“The decision citing that the ‘net economic and social impact of the additional 20 gaming machines is neutral to the well-being of the community of Mitchell Shire’ is misguided and disappointing.
“Nexus will continue to support individuals and families who are impacted by problematic gambling as it impacts financially as well as impacting the emotional, physical and general wellbeing of families.”
- Free, confidential gambling support is available by calling Gambler’s Help on 1800 858 858 or visiting gamblinghelponline.org.au.