Council creates special committee to progress new gambling policy

By Stephen Mayne

Robert Doyle has been gone from Town Hall for more than 18 months but the impact of some of his decisions lives on – particularly in relation to conflicts of interest arising from campaign donations.

Team Doyle no longer formally exists but there are still five serving councillors who are not able to make decisions related to donors who Robert Doyle secured to support his 2016 campaign.

This came into sharp relief at the July 30 council meeting when council was unable to make a decision in relation to Planning Scheme Amendment 307, a tough new poker machine policy which had been three years in the making.

Team Doyle councillors were ruled out by a $40,000 donation to Team Doyle from the Australian Hotels Association in 2016, along with the decision by wealthy advertising man and Crown Resorts director Harold Mitchell to donate $10,000.

After raising about $300,000 from property developers for his 2012 re-election campaign and successfully winning five seats for Team Doyle on council, the next four years saw a number of examples of quorum being lost and decisions being delegated to the officers.

A quorum is six of the 11 councillors, so for this to happen in the 2012-16 council it always required one additional councillor to be either absent or conflicted to reduce overall numbers to just five.

When Team Doyle briefly got to a majority of six councillors in the second half of 2017, the November 2017 decision to send the new gambling policy off to panel had to be made by officers under delegation.

The election of Sally Capp as Lord Mayor last year was hopefully going to ensure council could make gambling decisions but she then opted to accept a $4000 donation from Ann Peacock, a long-time marketing employee at Crown Melbourne, which rendered her personally conflicted on gambling matters. 

As all this became apparent at the July 30 council meeting, some quick thinking saw the councillors opt to establish a dedicated committee, the Gaming Planning Provision Committee, to progress the planning scheme amendment.

The new special purpose committee held a 15-minute meeting on August 6 when the five non-conflicted councillors – Rohan Leppert, Cathy Oke, Jackie Watts, Philip Le Lui and Nic Frances Gilley – gathered together and endorsed sending the panel report on the proposed tough new gambling policy off to Minister for Planning Richard Wynne.

The council has asked the minister to go a little harder than the panel recommended as it does not wish to encourage new poker machine venues, preferring a harm minimisation approach.

One of the reasons City of Melbourne only has eight pokies venues – for instance there are none in suburbs such as Docklands, North Melbourne, East Melbourne or Parkville – is that council has one of the best records of any Australian council when it comes to resisting pokies applications at VCAT and before the gambling regulator.

The Queensberry Hotel in Carlton, The Victoria Hotel behind Town Hall and the Francis Hotel in Lonsdale St are just some of the venues which have tried and failed to install pokies over the years.

The adoption of Planning Scheme Amendment 307 will make it even tougher, which is a good thing.

Stephen Mayne is a former City of Melbourne councillor who has long campaigned to reduce gambling harm in Australia.   

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