Comment

COMMENT

Canberra clubs can't 'compromise' to the point of dying out

The government is squeezing local clubs out to please a foreign-owned casino.

Compromise:

  • A way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute.
  • A change that makes something worse and that is not done for a good reason.

Compromise is a word that not-for-profit community clubs in Canberra know too well. They have been doing it for over a decade. For our local clubs, the word "compromise" has come to mean something else. Certainly not an agreeable state of existence between two parties, but rather a set of terms that has favoured political interest at the expense of clubs, their 200,000-plus members and the 1100 community organisations they support.

With a decision on Canberra Casino's bid looming, I have been asked: "What is your compromise position?"

This question needs context, lest a genuine inability to compromise any further is misrepresented by vested interests as unwillingness by clubs to find a middle ground. If you consider the background, it's extremely difficult to see why we should acquiesce.

In 2004, the ACT government introduced a $20 note denomination limit for poker machines, followed with smoking bans two years later. While clubs understood the intent of these changes, they were imposed many years before our neighbouring jurisdiction, NSW. Revenue declined significantly and clubs never recovered. Today we are still 9 per cent down on our position of 10 years ago.

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In 2008, on the back of this declining revenue, the ACT introduced a new tax regime. In essence, when it started receiving less tax revenue, the government implemented policy to get more!

In 2010, the government increased the minimum community contribution value (even though clubs have always given more than the minimum). A new 0.6 per cent levy as a contribution to problem gambling quickly followed (despite the fact that clubs already voluntarily funded problem-gambling initiatives).

But it doesn't end there.

Clubs maintain over 400 hectares of urban green space for community sporting use, but are slugged with extra charges, despite the obvious community benefit of these facilities. We must even pay usage charges for the water we catch in our own dams to irrigate our courses. Charges like this don't exist anywhere else in the country.

Where community infrastructure is maintained, most Australian utilities apply a discounted rate, but there is nothing like this in place for community clubs in Canberra. Our tap-water charges are twice the price of those in Sydney and have increased by over 400 per cent in 10 years.

If a golf course had to irrigate with tap water alone, it would cost more than $700,000 every year. Watering an oval costs about $130,000 and a bowls greens $15,000. Yet clubs battle on in the face of this increasingly difficult operating environment.

But that's not where it ends either.

Did you know our liquor licence fee structure is attached to the size of venue but not, more appropriately, to risk? Our 50 Canberra clubs spend over $550,000 a year on liquor licence fees – they represent only 7 per cent of the territory's 680 licenses but pay 18 per cent of the total revenue raised. Clubs in NSW pay just $510 per venue to trade until midnight, whereas an ACT club of similar size and open to the same time is required to pay a $5000 licence fee.

Did you know that since the government changed the general rates regime, clubs collectively pay over $1.5 million in rates a year? Indeed, one Canberra club's rates increased so dramatically they went from $12,000 to $47,000 in just three years!

Clubs pay their fair share of other taxes, too.

Did you know we pay over $33 million in gaming tax? Meanwhile, the government is considering a deal for the casino, which currently only pays $1.5 million. And in understanding the latter's paltry contribution, do you consider it against the rates, water charges, GST, licensing fees and more paid by clubs? And that's before the over $11 million clubs contribute each year to local community organisations.

In 2014, despite declining revenue and increasing charges, bigger clubs compromised yet again on tax changes on the reasonable, but ultimately misguided, belief that the government would be willing to compromise on other regulatory issues. We shouldn't have been surprised when they back-flipped and we were worse off again.

Last year, an Assembly committee inquiry relating to clubs was intended to create greater legislative certainty. Despite the tri-partisan support, fewer than half of the committee's recommendations were agreed to and the ones selected will make little material difference to club operations in the future.

Then, barely a month later, while we were scratching our heads in an effort to identify where it all went wrong with the inquiry, the casino announced its redevelopment plans, and once again clubs have been asked to compromise.

Our clubs are not-for-profit organisations "owned" by Canberrans. They pay a huge amount each year into the ACT Treasury's coffers, provide services to well over half the territory's population, fund community organisations, provide recreation facilities, employ 2300 people and spend millions of dollars with local suppliers – yet they are constantly asked to make "compromises". And this time it's to help an overseas beneficiary expand a casino that is likely to increase problem gambling locally and drain resources forever from the ACT.

When you know a change will make something worse, what would you do? Compromise?

Gwyn Rees is chief executive of ClubsACT.

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