In the back room of an outback pub, a group of around 100 worried locals gathered to perform the Whitlams’ hit Blow Up the Pokies.
- Residents of Alice Springs are protesting plans to install dozens of new poker machines in pubs and hotels
- Iris Capital requested the 60-week facility after buying many of the city’s hospitality venues
- There are concerns about the gambling and alcohol industry’s ability to influence government decision-making
Aided by the local choir, community members are making their voices heard on plans to roll out dozens of new poker machines to pubs and hotels in Alice Springs.
“I came because…I work at the hospital here in Alice Springs and I see every day how many problems our people have,” said one attendee.
“We no longer need gambling in our community.”
Hospitality giant Iris Capital has applications for 60 new slot machines to be installed at four of its newly purchased Alice Springs locations, including several where there are currently none.
The Sydney-based company has already expanded its slots empire, having added at least 115 new slots to Lasseter’s Casino since buying the Alice Springs site for $105 million last October.
Locals have resumed the fight, fearing that adding more pokies will disproportionately affect some of the area’s most vulnerable residents.
A “perfect storm”
Anti-pokies campaigners said the timing of the nominations was the “perfect storm”.
In July, long-term alcohol bans introduced during the Northern Territory intervention in dozens of remote communities and urban camps around Alice Springs ended.
Frontline organisations, including the Central Australian Aboriginal Congress and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said they saw an increase in serious alcohol-related injuries in the weeks that followed.
Meanwhile, the use of the cashless debit card, which limits social benefits for drinking and gambling, is set to be scrapped by the Labor government.
Activist and former drug addict Roxanne Highfold said there were already too many machines in Alice Springs, a town struggling with some of the highest rates of poverty, alcohol abuse and violence in the country.
“To be honest, I’m worried about my people using the poker machines and going into even more debt, and also the long-term impact that will have on the community,” she said.
“I would hate to see Alice Springs come to a point where every pub has poker machines, and that takes away the recreational activities of pubs, where families can go for a meal or enjoy other recreational activities.”
The decision whether or not to approve Iris Capital’s applications rests with the director of NT gaming machines, who the government says operates at arm’s length from the cabinet.
Gaming Minister Chansey Paech was accused of “sitting on the fence” on the slots plan and declined to comment directly on whether he had any concerns about the potential expansion.
“Cashed in” Companies in the Gaming Industry
There have long been concerns about the gaming industry’s ability to influence government decision-making through well-documented tactics such as political donations and lobbying.
Researcher Tony Brown has provided legal assistance to members of the Casula community in south-west Sydney, where Iris Capital is in court to make a similar effort to expand its pokies empire despite the setback.
“We see these organizations moving in and their priority is unquestionably to maximize their profits, but we see very little government and legislative attention to the harms and consequences associated with the proliferation of pokies and liquor outlets,” said Dr Brown.
Dr Brown, who recently completed a doctorate on the regulation of alcohol and pokies across the country, said companies operating in the industry were generally powerful and politically connected, and tended to target socio-economic communities. – economically disadvantaged.
“What we’re seeing is that these opportunistic, cashed-in companies are really taking advantage of these desperate communities,” he said.
“They are really ripe to be picked.”
Dr Brown said big gambling and alcohol corporations had over decades “hijacked” legislative and regulatory processes in much of the country, running counter to politicians’ responsibility to work in the public interest.
“The role of government is to protect communities from outside threats and influences,” he said.
“What we are seeing instead is that these industries have effectively captured our democratically elected politicians and the institutions they control.”
Across the Northern Territory, there is a cap of 1,699 slots in operation for licensed sites, as well as caps for each site.
However, such caps do not exist at the two NT licensed casinos: Lasseters and Mindil Beach Casino Resort in Darwin.
As the overall cap nears its limit, there has been an increase in gaming machine requests made to Licensing NT, from just one in fiscal year 2021-22 to eight since July (including four from Iris Capital).
As a nation, Australia has more slot machines per person outside of casinos than anywhere else in the world, and holds the title of the country with the world’s worst average gambling losses at around $1,000 per adult every year.
Investment in the “welcome” Territory
The NT hospitality industry’s peak body has backed Iris Capital’s bids, arguing the company was being unfairly targeted.
“We welcome investments in food, beverage, accommodation, upgrades throughout the territory, and yes gaming services are part of that,” said Alex Bruce, managing director of Hospitality NT.
“There are a lot of gambling problems in unregulated community card houses, on the streets, in public parks.
“People can sit at home and bet online and lose their house – we never see the focus on that, it’s always on the pub with the light on.”
Mr Bruce said the territory has some of the best gambling regulations, pointing to a number of recent changes to the Government of the Northwest Territories’ responsible gambling code of practice, including a course mandatory online for personnel working in industry.
Iris Capital did not respond directly to questions about its business strategy or the potential impact of its plan for Alice Springs, but said in a statement that the company is looking to use its newly purchased sites to their full “capacity”.
“Iris will seek to spend significant sums to reposition and activate the sites to operate at capacity in all areas. This includes games,” the spokesperson said.