Outback town's victory against all odds halts march of the 'pokies'

A rural Australian community has inspired a popular revolt against poker machines after seeing off developer's plans for its only pub
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The Independent Online

The 142-year-old Romsey Hotel has seen better days. With its edgy atmosphere and gloomy décor, the pub – located in a small town north of Melbourne – is distinctly uninviting. One thing, though, sets it apart from many drinking establishments around Australia: it has no electronic poker machines.

Over the past decade or two, following liberalisation of the country's gaming laws, "pokies" – as they are known here – have become ubiquitous, particularly in the cities and suburbs. With a population of little more than 22 million, Australia is now home to more than one-fifth of the machines. More recently, they have begun to colonise rural areas, with their march seeming unstoppable – until little Romsey rebelled.

The fight began quietly enough. A wealthy Melbourne businessman, Jim Hogan, bought the Romsey Hotel, the town's only pub, and announced plans to renovate it and install a gaming room. He had already done the same in the township of Wallan, 14 miles away, despite resistance from locals. In Romsey, residents – aware of the social costs of problem gambling – were determined to keep the pokies at bay.

They lobbied their council, Macedon Ranges Shire, which organised a plebiscite; nearly 80 per cent opposed Mr Hogan's proposal. Councillors rejected his application for a gaming licence. He appealed, the council appealed, and the five-year battle went all the way to the Victorian Supreme Court. In a landmark judgment, the court ruled in favour of Romsey, a semi-rural town of 4,500.

Now other small communities are following suit, in Victoria and further afield. And – thanks to pressure from some of the independent MPs on whom it depends – Julia Gillard's minority Labor government has promised to impose new restrictions on poker machines, including daily limits on how much can be wagered.

In Romsey, though, the aftermath of the victory has been mixed. While anti-gambling campaigners are jubilant, a vociferous minority – which believed a renovated hotel would benefit other businesses and create jobs – feels that its wishes were trampled. Mr Hogan claims to be considering selling the pub to a petrol station – meaning that the town with no pokies could end up with no pub at all. During the legal saga, some opponents of the machines had beer bottles or rotten eggs smashed on their doorsteps. Drinkers hurled abuse at the Macedon Ranges mayor, John Letchford, from the pub veranda after the Supreme Court ruled that the negative social impact of Mr Hogan's plans would outweigh any economic benefits.

Sue Kirkegard, who led the anti-pokies crusade, feared for the young families who make up the bulk of Romsey's population. She and her fellow campaigners point to a recent government report which found that problem gambling costs Australia at least $4.7bn (£2.9bn) a year, and that 40 per cent of total spending on pokies is by gambling addicts.

"Pokies have been around long enough that everyone knew something terrible that had happened to someone they knew," says Ms Kirkegard. "One friend, her mother-in-law used to help at the bingo. There were always two old dears there, then suddenly one disappeared. When she asked, 'where's Mary?', it turned out that Mary had lost her house on the pokies. I also know a bloke who got called out to his mate's house one night, because his mate was about to murder his wife. She'd blown the mortgage."

Others were worried that gambling would alter the feel of the town. "I like the fact that Romsey doesn't have a train station or a high school or a Woolworth's [supermarket]," says Julie Johns, a mother of six. "It's a peaceful place, totally quiet at night. Even the chip shop closes by 8pm."

The case struck a chord nationally. Anne Phelan, a Romsey resident and a leading Australian actor who has starred in Prisoner and Neighbours, was on tour in Western Australia earlier this year. She says: "People would come up to me in these remote places and say, 'Aren't you from that town in Victoria that's beat the pokies?'" Romsey, it seems, may have set off a grassroots movement against the machines. In Woodend, just to the west, bumper stickers declare the town "proud to be pokie-free".

In Jan Juc, a seaside hamlet on the Victorian coast, the council won a high-profile battle against a gaming application last week. However, in Romsey the local sports clubs which are sponsored by Mr Hogan – and had hoped for extra financial support – are bitterly disappointed. "We have cricket, football, netball, golf, bowls and tennis, and poker machines would have contributed to each and every one of them," says John Lynch, a former football club president.

"A scare tactic was run by the doomers and gloomers, and it has cost us a new hotel, and a conference room, and five motel rooms, and up to 40 jobs. If we lose the pub as well, that's going to devastate the town. I don't know how we'd survive that."

Mr Hogan, who is laying on courtesy buses to transport Romsey folk across the countryside to Wallan, says: "I think the whole thing has been blown out of all proportion. Gambling is a legal recreational activity, and if there was a gaming room in the Romsey Hotel, no one would be forced to go there. It's preposterous that 20 or 30 people can hold up a multi-million-dollar development. What about the rights of my patrons? They've been abrogated by a small minority of people who want to foist their morals on everyone else."

In the political arena, meanwhile, the federal government's pledge to address problem gambling follows pressure from Andrew Wilkie, one of four independents elected in August. Mr Wilkie has joined forces with Nick Xenophon, a Senator and veteran anti-pokies advocate. But they and others hoping for a crackdown have got a fight on their hands. The gaming industry is extremely powerful, and state governments depend on revenue from poker machines, which represents about one-tenth of their annual budgets. (One exception is Western Australia, where the machines are confined to casinos.)

Mr Xenophon applauds the stand taken by Romsey. "This case shows that communities, if they have a choice, don't want poker machines," he says.