ACT government urged to dump pokies for Canberra Casino plans
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ACT government urged to dump pokies for Canberra Casino plans

A director of the Gambling Reform Alliance, Tim Costello, has urged the ACT government to abandon any proposal to introduce poker machines at Canberra Casino.

Mr Costello said the government needed to abandon the proposed pokies expansion at the casino and "instead focus more aggressively on delivering the promised 20 per cent cut in pokies numbers across the territory".

Gambling reform advocate Tim Costello has urged the ACT government to abandon plans to install pokies in Canberra Casino.

Gambling reform advocate Tim Costello has urged the ACT government to abandon plans to install pokies in Canberra Casino.Credit:Janie Barrett

His comments follow the government last week setting a one-month deadline on casino owners Aquis to provide key details of its redevelopment plans in the wake o legislating to allow the machines in the casino last year.

But Aquis chief executive Jessica Mellor had hit back, in a statement to the stock exchange, saying the company would meet the deadline, but criticising the government for not providing details on the planned legislation for 17 months.

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Attorney-General Gordon Ramsay has set the deadline as a final ultimatum for Aquis for its unsolicited bid that has dragged on since the initial proposal in 2015 without any actual movement on the $330 redevelopment.

If the company now does not provide specific details on how it will redevelop the casino by May 14, Mr Ramsay's spokeswoman said the government would simply stop considering the current bid, sending Aquis back the drawing board.

Mr Costello said that since shares in Aquis this week hit a "record low of 2.9 cents", the market "clearly doesn't believe there will be a commercially successful deal with the government".

He also said Canberra was "one of the world's most pokies-saturated jurisdictions" and criticised the ACT Labor Party for being the "only mainstream political party in the world which raises funds through operating pokies dens", through the Labor Club.

But ACT Labor secretary Matthew Byrne said Mr Costello was wrong in his criticism, and the party had not accepted any direct financial contributions from the club since 2014.

Mr Byrne said the party's key fundraising body, the 1973 Foundation, had also stopped giving funds to the party in 2013, but the party continued to accept in-kind gifts from the club, in the form of free room hire for branch meetings and the like.

But Mr Byrne would not explain how accepting such gifts in-kind from the club, which derives most of its revenue from pokies, was seen as different to direct financial contributions.

Mr Costello also urged the government to put a $5 limit on per-spin bets on all poker machines in the ACT, in a similar move to other jurisdictions in recent years.

He also said the government's existing 20 per cent reduction target was not ambitious enough, given the number of machines already warehoused.

Mr Costello said the real test of a successful harm minimisation scheme was actual gambling losses and tax revenue, pointing to the 2017-18 ACT budget estimates that gaming taxes from poker machines would rise from $33.5 million in 2017-18 to $37.9 million in 2020-21.

"Therefore, our biggest goal is reduced harm through reduced losses and cutting machine numbers and venues is an important start, as is reducing the $10 maximum bet to $5, as has occurred in Victoria, Queensland and SA," Mr Costello said.

But Mr Ramsay's spokeswoman rejected such a proposal, saying the government already had a $10 per-spin limit on machines, and it was not considering further per-spin restrictions.

On the ultimatum for Aquis, she said the government had been waiting since "mid-2017 for key financial information to confirm the viability and capacity" of the company to redevelop the casino.

If that information was not provided by the deadline, she said the government had "no option but to assume Aquis Entertainment no longer wish to proceed" with the project.

Correction: This article previously stated the ACT Labor Party received funds from the 1973 Foundation until 2014, but the correct year was 2013.

Daniel Burdon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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