Pokies' community benefits ‘a farce’

A leading expert on the social impacts of poker machines has described as “a farce” a system by which not-for-profit gaming venues in Bendigo claim day-to-day expenses as community benefits.

Bendigo Advertiser analysis of gambling figures released by the state government shows the majority of “community benefits” claimed by Bendigo pokies clubs were actually used to cover the venues’ operating costs.

The city’s four not-for-profit gaming venues declared a total of more than $5.7 million, or about a third of their $18 million total gaming revenue, was funneled back into the community in 2015-16.

But a breakdown of the figures released by the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation shows more of that money went towards the venues’ maintenance and staffing costs than traditional community causes such as donations, gifts and sponsorships.

Head of the gambling and social determinants unit at Monash University’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Charles Livingstone, said while the clubs were not breaking any laws by claiming running costs as community benefits, "the current scheme does not provide real benefit for the community – what it provides is benefit for the clubs claiming them”.

“When we see clubs in particular say that somehow paying the wages and superannuation and for the TV and the gas bill is some sort of community benefit – I mean it would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious,” he said.

“Dressing up very, very minor contributions made by clubs [as a community benefit] does all of us a major disservice and is effectively a legitimisation exercise and an alibi used by the clubs to justify the harm they impose on the community.”​

Just $79,632 of the $284,482 in community benefits claimed by the Borough Club, owned by Bendigo Stadium Limited, was spent on “donations, gifts and sponsorships”, while more than half that amount was spent on member discounts.

The stadium itself spent $465,723 on “donations, gifts and sponsorships” and Bendigo Braves and other basketball and volleyball expenses, less than one sixth of the $2,903,097 it claimed in community benefits.

The Bendigo District RSL spent $596,351 on community services including $111,045 on advice, support and services to ex-service personnel, carers and families, less than a quarter of the total it claimed in community benefits.

Other items listed in the clubs’ community benefit statements included rent, travel and accommodation, cleaning services and security contracts.

By law, clubs must demonstrate they gave the equivalent of at least 8.33 per cent of the venue’s gaming revenue to approved community purposes or activities.

The RSL was the only one of the four clubs to spend more than 8.33 per cent of its revenue on community activities once running costs, including more than $300,000 in wages, were stripped out.

Dr Livingstone said while the community benefit statements were “dishonest” and “misleading” the clubs were not being disingenuous in claiming the benefits, and laid the blame for the problem at the feet of the state government.

“There are certainly some clubs that provide genuine community benefits but sadly they are few and far between,” he said.

“All this scheme does is just give them a bad name.”

A 2010 Productivity Commission report estimated the amount of total pokies revenue contributed by problem gamblers at about 40 per cent.

When extrapolated across Bendigo’s four venues that figure indicates the clubs spent slightly more than 15 per cent of the total revenue they collected from problem gamblers on recognisable community benefits.

Dr Livingstone said the shortfall reflected the fact that poker machines invariably did more harm than good.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, there’s no question that pokies do more harm than good in any Australian jurisdiction,” he said.

Bendigo Club general manager Adrian McMahon said the venue had gone into administration last year and was now under new management, since which time donations had “increased dramatically”, and was “actively involved in preventative measures to prevent problem gambling”.

“The Bendigo Club takes its community responsibilities seriously,” he said.

“The club acts as an umbrella club for numerous community groups and not-for-profits, and supports local groups including sporting clubs, the Bendigo Youth Choir, Cleft Palate Foundation and more.”

A spokeswoman for Gaming and Liquor Regulation minister Marlene Kairouz said any club that made money from pokies was required by law to verify they also provide a “significant benefit” to the community.

“The government is currently conducting a major review of pokies regulations, including community benefit statements and how they can work better,” she said.

The Bendigo Stadium and RSL were contacted for comment.