BENDIGO gambling venues have so far failed to recover the record pre-pandemic hauls they once raked in from electronic gambling machines.
But a gambling splurge last December - just before the Omicron wave of COVID-19 wreaked new havoc - has deeply concerned reform advocates.
They fear a return to the record losses seen in Greater Bendigo in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.
The Bendigo Advertiser has analysed takings from 11 venues, using figures provided by the Victorian Gambling and Casino Control Commission.
Those numbers suggest that on the whole, electronic gambling machines are not reeling in as many gamblers even as the region recovers from the worst of the pandemic.
Gamblers spent $8,718,147.94 less on poker machines in the first seven months of this financial year, compared to the same period during 2019/20.
The pandemic arrived in Bendigo in March of that financial year. Until then, reform advocates had been speculating that Bendigo gamblers would at least come close to topping an all time record spend for one financial year.
That was because those spends had been trending upwards over two decades to a height of $50,671,967.86 in 2018/19.
Gambling reform advocates are not celebrating the apparent drop in losses this financial year, though.
That is because, last December, Bendigo gamblers spent $4,415,887.99 on electronic gambling machines, or close to $140,000 more than the same month in 2019.
Records were broken across the state last December, the Alliance for Gambling Reform's chief advocate Tim Costello said.
"Many of the LGAs [local government areas] with the highest losses are also some of the most stressed communities in our state," he said in a media release coinciding with new government gambling data.
"Families across Victoria are being shamelessly preyed on by corporations looking to make a quick buck."
The 11 Greater Bendigo venues that run poker machines include businesses as well as not-for-profits like an RSL.
The VGCCC is yet to release figures for the month of February, so it is unclear whether gamblers began flocking back to electronic gaming machines in greater numbers as the Omicron wave eased.
In the meantime, the Reverend Costello said governments needed to bring in a host of changes including universal recommitment and reduced opening hours.
He also called for the abolition of "losses disguised as wins" and an uptick in funding for educational campaigns.
"Yes, people are waking up to the harm being done by this predatory industry. Yes, the Victorian government has committed to first steps in holding Crown accountable," the reverend Costello said.
"But what about the hundreds of millions lost every month in pubs and clubs? What action is being taken to address this crisis in the regions?"
- Gamblers Helpline: 1800 858 858, gamblershelp.com.au
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