The $8.7 million COVID-19 silver lining in Merri-bek (media release)

27 May 2020 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time for many Merri-bekers but the forced shutdown of pubs and clubs in the area has led to $8.7 million saved from being fed into poker machines.

Council’s priority during the COVID-19 pandemic has been the health, safety and wellbeing of the local community and measures such as a financial hardship policy, fee relief for businesses and increased essential services have been adopted to support Merri-bek residents and businesses.

A long-time advocate to reduce gambling harm in Merri-bek, Council has also written to the Victorian Government to support measures to reduce the burden of gambling losses in our communities.

Moreland Mayor Cr Lambros Tapinos said Council is urging the State Government to make any financial assistance to gambling venues as part of COVID-19 recovery packages conditional on permanently surrendering gambling machine licences from Victorian clubs and hotels through a buy-back scheme.

“We are on the frontline and hearing from people about the hardships some community members are facing due to COVID-19 and we are continuing to implement measures and relief packages to help individuals and businesses through this difficult time,” said Cr Tapinos.

“But if we can come out of this difficult time with some positives, we would love one of those positives to be the significant reduction of gambling harm in Merri-bek.

“The amount saved from being fed into poker machines since 23 March is staggering, almost $175,000 a day in our city.”

“For many families, this change could mean they can now pay their bills and put food on the table. The benefits can also be wider, as it is likely that money saved from poker machine losses has been spent locally, boosting the economy when it is needed most.”

“We acknowledge there has also been an increase in the uptake of online gambling throughout the state of emergency, and this is another long-term challenge we want to see addressed.”   

In its letter to the State Government, Council highlighted the ACT Government’s leadership in supporting local clubs as part of their COVID-19 economic support package, including offering payments of $15,000 for each gambling machine licence that is voluntarily surrendered, provided that the extra money goes towards retaining and supporting staff.

Other measures could include tax breaks or concessions on licensing as well as direct cash injections.

In Merri-bek municipality alone, $63.5 million was lost in 2018-2019.

Alliance for Gambling Reform Chief Advocate, the Rev. Tim Costello, says pubs and clubs that operate poker machines will find that they contribute much more to local economies without poker machines.

“Research suggests it is far more productive to invest in hospitality than gambling, where we know for every $1 million spent on food and meals 20 jobs are created. Contrast that with a mere three jobs for the same amount lost to gambling.

"COVID-19 is presenting us with a unique opportunity to rethink the dire situation Australia has gotten itself into with the prevalence of gambling. Australians lost $25 billion gambling last year, the highest rate of losses per head in the entire world.

“That will not only save families and individuals from inordinate pain, including family violence, mental ill-health and homelessness, it will provide billions of dollars to be spent in our economy at a time when we need it most.”