Deadline looms for clubs to surrender pokies for cash

Time has almost run out for Canberra's pokies venues to give up their machines before the ACT government starts seizing them.

Clubs and hotels have until January 31 to exchange their poker machines for cash and other discounts, before the government starts a regime of forced surrenders to reduce the number of gaming machines in the city.

Clubs and hotels must choose to surrender their machines or face potential forced forfeitures.  Photo: Peter Braig

Clubs and hotels must choose to surrender their machines or face potential forced forfeitures. Photo: Peter Braig

The government and venues are staying tight-lipped about the status of the voluntary handback until next month.

A spokeswoman from the Justice and Community Safety Directorate said it would be "premature" to speculate on the progress until after February 8, the date by which contracts must be signed.

"The directorate continues to work with gaming machine licensees to access the voluntary surrender package," she said.

The Canberra Times has also spoken to several clubs which have confirmed they have put in a proposal, but said they were unable to speak on the record until their submissions were approved.

The Southern Cross Club - which has 680 authorisations across its four clubs, although only 594 machines on the floor - confirmed it had filed the required paperwork to voluntarily hand back some authorisations but could not go into detail.

Acting chief executive Wesley Willcott said the group had been actively diversifying its revenue for the past five or six years, regardless of the government push to cut poker machines.

"We've been investing in food and beverage, refreshing our venues and opened new outlets like Woden Central which opened at the Woden club in September," Mr Willcott said.

"We've also been investing in the health and wellbeing space as evidence by Stellar Canberra. It has a 24-hour gym, a learn-to-swim pool, a float pool with saltwater that's used by a hydrotherapy business and a group exercise training centre."

Tradies Club chief executive Rob Docker also confirmed his organisation had put a proposal to the government, but couldn't speak in detail.

The Tradies Club has 420 authorisations although only had 309 machines on the floor.

"We are strongly supportive of the government's initiative to reduce poker machines, there've been too many in this city for a long time," Mr Docker said.

"We're seeing a 20 per cent reduction in machines and the government wants clubs to fall in line. We have surrendered entitlements in line their wishes but are unable to say how many."

However Liberals' gaming spokesman Mark Parton said clubs were getting a "raw deal".

"Many of them are in backs to the wall, survival mode, doing whatever they can to protect themselves and their members from a vindictive Green-Labor government," Mr Parton said.

“Clubs that can afford legal advice have sought it. Those that do not have the resources to do so, namely small community clubs, have no choice but to accept the government terms."

At November 30 last year, there were 4283 machines in operation in 44 venues across Canberra, although there were 4982 authorisations in play.

The trading scheme originally announced to reduce the number of machines from 5000 to 4000 saw only 74 authorisations forfeited due to trade and six surrendered.

But under a plan unveiled last year, small to medium clubs can get $12,000 per licence they give up and a discount of $25,000 on lease variation fees, while larger clubs can receive a $15,000 lease variation charge discount per authorisation.

The five hotels in Canberra that have gaming machines would also get $6000 in cash for each authorisation they surrendered, but would be ineligible for the planning discounts.

Clubs would be forced to surrender their machines in two tranches - April 2019 and April 2020 - if the 4000 cap was not reached. Hotels would not be forced to surrender their machines.

The government is also still in discussions with clubs about changes to the community contribution scheme.

Under the new rules out for public comment, clubs will no longer be able to claim costs associated with professional sports - including wages for coaches and melee and forfeiture fines - as community contributions, unless there is a connection to women's sport.

Facilities maintenance will also be banned as a community contribution, unless the facility is connected to women's sport.

"The directorate continues to have conversations with clubs and interest groups about the regulation to for the community contributions scheme," the spokeswoman said.

"The government will incorporate feedback from these conversations into the final regulation which will be made well in advance of July 1, 2019."

Mr Parton said the uncertainty around the future of the scheme meant the financial viability of clubs and the charities and sporting organisations they support "has never been more at risk".

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said large clubs could receive a $12,000 discount.