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Over the past few months I have spent many days in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal (VCAT) alongside community members and organisations fighting against Woolworths’ to keep poker machines out of South Morang.

The eleven day hearing on the historic Commercial Hotel was Victoria’s longest running pokies case and we are now waiting for the decision.

The disregard of the company for the local community was staggering. This was a pokies application which the state government, through its gambling regulator the VCGLR, had rejected.

Woolworths already hoovers up 25% of all poker machine revenue in Victoria – $669 million of the $2.61 billion in 2016-17 losses – but on a rare occasion when the State Government supported a local council decision to say “no more”, off they went to court.

Whittlesea City Council in Melbourne’s outer north is already one of Victoria’s most harmed local government areas from poker machines with losses of $107 million in 2016-17. This compares with $143 million in total revenue from annual rates and charges for the council.

Yet the council was then forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars defending their decision, and community agencies spent valuable resources and staff time in submissions and presentations in order to support council and the community in opposing the application.

Woolworths paid interstate guns for hire to devise questionable community surveys and fashion dubious reports to further their case. They even trotted out former Melbourne footballer David Shwartz as an advocate for pokies expansion, when he’s meant to be the company ambassador for responsible gaming, as it noted on page 58 of its recently published 85 page corporate responsibility report.

Woolworths has spent close to $500,000 trying to persuade VCAT that the community and council were wrong in their assessment that pokies would hurt their community despite the fact that losses at three existing Woolworths pubs in the City of Whittlesea already exceed $50 million a year.

The whole sorry exercise reflects poorly on Woolworths and threatens the reputation and credibility of the company, which is Australia’s biggest pokies operator with about 13,000 machines.

Woolworths has shown themselves to be out of touch with contemporary community sentiment and at odds with a global movement towards greater corporate social responsibility.

When combined with recent comments by ex CEO Roger Corbett about marriage equality, it is clear that the company is in need of new leadership and generational change. Roger Corbett may no longer be CEO but the 75-year-old came up with the pokies strategy and still chairs the company’s Australian Leisure and Hospitality joint venture with pokies billionaire Bruce Mathieson.

Woolworths lost customers over his “vote no” comments just as it is losing customers over its pokies reliance.

As a public health professional and proud member of a rainbow family, I’ll be asking the Woolworths directors why their nominee to chair its pokies business thinks it is fine for the company to be operating more than 70 pokies venues across Melbourne at 2am in the morning 7 days a week, but stops loving couples from being allowed to marry.

As a devoted Anglican, I’m not sure how Roger Corbett can reconcile all of this. Does he sleep well at night, knowing that Australians are the world’s biggest gamblers with $23 billion a year in annual losses, with poker machines delivering more than half of those losses. Is he comfortable with the estimated 400 gambling-related suicides a year in Australia?

It is worth noting that rival Coles has shown leadership in this area supporting $1 maximum bets, a measure recommended by the Productivity Commission. Outgoing Wesfarmers CEO Richard Goyder has declared he “hates” poker machines and is now trying to do something about it in his new role as Chairman of the AFL.

I am standing for the Woolworths Board in order to highlight to shareholders the risks inherent with sticking with tired and out of touch directors. Chairman Gordon Cairns is a former CEO of liquor giant Lion Nathan, so he’s well acquainted with the clubs and pubs industry which host Australia’s 196,000 poker machines.

In essence, my tilt at the board at the November 23 AGM is to show Woolworths that it’s time to get out of the pokies business and to also finally show Roger Corbett the door, once and for all.

If Woolworths is proudly supporting the Yes campaign and promoting their corporate responsibility, then why does it continue to have its enormously harmful pokies division chaired by an old white man like Roger Corbett?

*Dr Susan Rennie is a Darebin City councillor and adviser for gambling harm prevention at North East Primary Care Partnership. She was not paid for this article.

Peter Fray

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