ACT extends pokies scheme for a year, amid wait for 4000 cap
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ACT extends pokies scheme for a year, amid wait for 4000 cap

The ACT government has extended its poker machine transfer scheme for another year - with only 38 machines forfeited - but clubs are left waiting for new laws to implement a promised 4000 cap meant to replace it.

Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay on Thursday introduced a bill to extend the scheme until August 2019, a year longer than the original timeline set by then-minister Joy Burch in 2015, as well as further changes related to Canberra Casino.

Canberra Casino owners face a deadline to confirm $300 million plans, as the city's clubs await detail on forced surrender of pokie authorisations.

Canberra Casino owners face a deadline to confirm $300 million plans, as the city's clubs await detail on forced surrender of pokie authorisations.

It comes as casino owners' Aquis faces a deadline next week to respond to the government on its plans for its unsolicited bid for a $300-million-odd redevelopment of the casino and Canberra's clubs await details on the potential forced surrender of hundreds of machines from next April.

When announced three years ago, the trading scheme was meant to help reduce the number of poker machines to 15 per 1000 ACT residents over three years to August 2018, replacing a previous commitment to a 4000 total cap on machine numbers in Canberra.

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But since it started operating, the scheme has resulted in only 38 machine authorisations actually being forfeited, when the scheme initially began, with clubs largely holding tight amid uncertainty about the future.

In a discussion paper published in September, the government also planned to begin forcing clubs to surrender them to meet the 4000 cap target last month, a time limit that was also extended by a year.

The government has also appointed former Commonwealth public servant Neville Stevens to complete a new "clubs industry diversification analysis", to provide recommendations on how best to help clubs meet that delayed deadline.

The commitment to having 15 machines for every 1000 residents was superseded in the 2016 parliamentary agreement with the Greens, reverting back to the 4000 cap in place before the trading scheme - which with the ACT's population at about 400,000, result in just 10 machines for every 1000 residents.

Under the bill Mr Ramsay introduced on Thursday, the original August 2018 deadline has been extended to August next year. Ramsay said further legislation would be forthcoming to implement the 4000 cap.

It would be the third piece of government legislation introduced since the 2016 election dealing with the poker machine transfer scheme, the casino proposal, or both.

Opposition gaming spokesman Mark Parton said the government's apparent piecemeal approach to reforming gaming regulation was an absolute debacle that was causing confusion among local clubs and the community.

"I note minister Ramsay’s appointment diary for the first three months of this year does not include a single meeting with any licensed club or with Clubs ACT," he said.

The bill also set up a framework for the Attorney-General to appoint a panel to assess any future redevelopment of Canberra Casino, by current owners' Aquis or another potential owner, as well as the potential trading of licences to allow up to 200 poker machines in the redeveloped casino.

Mr Ramsay said the panel would mean the government would create an "unprecedented level of transparency and independence" around the regulation of casino gaming in the ACT.

Mr Parton said there was a lack of consultation on the latest bill and it was hard to see how the proposed advisory panel would improve the government's "stated desire of transparency".

The government has previously said the casino redevelopment was integral to plans to reach the 4000 cap, as one in three licences acquired by the owners would need to be surrendered.

It is unclear how the government intends to reach that number, down from the 4502 active machines on floors across the city, in the absence of a casino redevelopment proposal and its related forfeitures, though the government has rejected compensating clubs for their potential losses.

Aquis recently told the stock exchange it planned to continue its path to redevelop the casino - including trying to attract more overseas high rollers on the back of direct flights to Singapore and Qatar.

But speculation continues about whether another entity may step into the breach, should the casino licence become available.

If a sale was in the works, the proposed panel would advise the minister on the public interest to approve it, or not, as well as any applications to operate poker machines or fully automated table games at the casino.

The panel would be appointed by the minister and each member would need a background in various fields, one of which related to gambling harm, though most related to the construction, finance and property.

Mr Ramsay's office did not respond to questions by deadline on Thursday.

Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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