Talk about a role reversal. Last night at the final Manningham City Council meeting of 2009, pokies giant Woolworths sent one of their spindoctors to the public gallery to ask hostile questions of the shareholder activist turned local politician.

The following motion made it on to the agenda as the final piece of business for the night:

14.1 Marketing of Pokies Venues in Manningham Involving Children

By Councillor Mayne

Motion That:

Manningham City Council calls on Woolworths and its pokies business partner Bruce Mathieson to cease involving children in the marketing of their five pokies venues in Manningham, namely The Doncaster Inn, The Shoppingtown Hotel, The Yarra Valley Country Club, The Cherry Hill Tavern and The Manningham Club.

Council notes the combined federal-state National Principles For The Conduct of Responsible Gaming state that children should not be “exposed to gambling areas within venues” and calls on Woolworths to cease promotions such as “Kids Eat Free” and “Kids Birthday Parties” at their venues in Manningham whilst also ensuring that any facilities accessible by children at these venues are not in any way exposed to the sights and sounds of pokies gambling.

After ripping into Woolies for a few minutes, the ruling clique quickly used their numbers to shut down debate and delay any vote until we adopt our full gaming policy early next year.

The hit man was Labor councillor Ivan Reid, who must have told the gallery he is a committed Christian and devoted father almost 20 times this year, but was still happy to give Australia’s biggest pokies operator a win for the night in their push to maintain their lucrative McDonalds-style marketing practices.

Sydney-based Woolies has out-sourced the management of its 12,000-strong pokies empire to colourful Melbourne-based billionaire Bruce Mathieson, who has employed a bloke called David Curry to be the spindoctor for the joint venture operation.

On reading about the coming debate here, Curry sent a letter to all councillors arguing against the “ridiculous” motion.

However, Curry went further by coming to last night’s meeting and submitting the following two written questions to be asked at the end proceedings:

1. Can Councillor Mayne please answer what state legislation prevents hotels from holding/promoting children’s parties?

2. Can Councillor Mayne please answer if minors are strictly prohibited from entry and participation as a matter of law in gaming rooms?

Talk about shooting fish in a barrel. The mayor, who had been interrupting debate all night, somehow thought these questions were designed to embarrass and should not be asked.

Bring it on, I said, and proceeded to look directly at the pokies spinner and unload with an even bigger spray than this effort served up to Woolies chairman James Strong at the AGM in Sydney on November 26.

Towards the end of the tirade accusing Woolies of systematically targeting children, adopting a lowest common denominator approach and preying on parents to become addicts, I actually felt sorry for the poor bloke.

After all, us precious Manningham councillors don’t allow unscripted verbal questions from the gallery, which is precisely what I do to public company chairs.

Therefore, I had an hour’s notice to prepare answers to the Woolies questions and the poor spinner had no right of reply, instead just scurrying off into the night. We need to open up Manningham council meeting to unscripted verbal questions from the public, if only to better hold our highly eccentric ruling clique to account.

Peter Fray

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