After a three-year debate, Manningham City Council in Melbourne’s affluent eastern suburbs tonight will finally have a public vote on whether to introduce double rates on the municipality’s seven pokies venues.

The proposed $112,000 slug (see the officer report here) on venues where punters collectively lost $65 million last year will fund dedicated problem-gambling programs, starting with a comprehensive research project.

Inner-city Moreland Council blazed the trail two years ago when it introduced Victoria’s first differential rate on pokies venues, but only after its initial attempt was delayed by a Supreme Court challenge by Woolworths and its billionaire pokies partner, Bruce Mathieson.

Manningham is also currently involved in an expensive Supreme Court stoush with Woolworths on an unrelated matter. This involves the grocery giant attempting to prevent council from allowing a competitor to build a supermarket on council-owned land at Jackson Court in Doncaster next door to a former Safeway supermarket that was converted into a Dan Murphy’s.

While the supermarket legal slugfest continues, with both sides spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, council officers are confident Woolworths won’t also sue over the pokies differential rate after carefully studying the successful Moreland model. Other councils are watching too.

Victorian law allows councils to apply a maximum 400% differential between the lowest rate and the highest and the Baillieu government specifically committed to retaining this right with pokies venues before getting elected.

While one Victorian council has 150 differentials, this will be Manningham’s first and Liberal mayor Geoff Gough has been strongly arguing against it on the basis that it would set a precedent and potentially open the floodgates for more.

However, it is hard to imagine other groups requesting they pay more rates like the pokies venues and there is no precedent for any category of ratepayer in Manningham getting a discount, save for the churches and state government properties that are completely exempt from rates.

Mayor Gough owns close to $100,000 worth of Woolworths shares and as Woolworths and Mathieson own five of the seven effected pokies venues in Manningham, he has declared a conflict of interest.

Manningham councillors last year voted 8-1 in favour of this strong motion calling for federal action to combat problem gambling and the issue has particular piquancy in Manningham because federal member Kevin Andrews has been Tony Abbott’s attack dog against pokies reform.

However, the vote tonight is not assured and with the mayor out of the room, deputy mayor Jennifer Yang will have a casting vote if the remaining eight councillors are dead-locked 4-4.

With federal reform prospects waning and the new conservative governments in Victoria, NSW and Queensland demonstrating little appetite for reducing pokies addiction, the onus falls back on local government, churches, families and community groups to pick up the pieces from the staggering $12 billion a year lost on the pokies.

I spoke last week at an insolvency conference in Queensland and was surprised how many practitioners complained about pokies addiction generating work for their industry from fraud and direct losses by addicts. The $12 billion in losses have to come from somewhere and if tonight’s proposal is endorsed, Manningham’s intensive research project will go some way to explaining why our residents have been spending more money on the pokies than their council rates in recent years.

As Victoria’s new venue-owned pokies licence model starts in August, there will be much shuffling of machines across the state. As the big players consider where to move their machines, Manningham’s double rates impost will send a small price signal that we’d rather not add to the 590 machines that will operate in our community from 2012-13 onwards.

*Stephen Mayne is a Manningham councillor and was not paid for this item

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