A pokies invasion on the Victorian town of Castlemaine has been stopped, after the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal today ended the long battle by finding in favour of the community group Enough Pokies in Castlemaine (EPIC).
Leader of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers' social justice practice Elizabeth O'Shea, who represented the community pro-bono in the drawn out fight, said the decision was extremely significant in the fight to retain the character of local communities.
"This decision draws a line in the sand in the battle against pokies invasions on unwilling towns, and sends a strong message that if communities band together and take the fight on, they will be heard. They can win the battle to preserve community character," Ms O'Shea said.
"There was strong evidence from independent experts, backed by overwhelming support from community survey evidence and most of all, a large, galvanised and dedicated community movement through EPIC which never relented in the fight.
"This is a watershed moment that should act as a blueprint for other communities who may previously have thought they couldn't take it up to big business in the fight against unwanted pokies and problem gambling."
Ms O'Shea said Maurice Blackburn's social justice practice was proud to represent EPIC, which has become the first community group other than a local council to successfully challenge pokies operators nationwide.
The Maryborough Highland Society, headquartered 40km away from Castlemaine in a different Shire, attempted to convert Castlemaine's historic Railway Goods Shed into a venue with 65 poker machines, tripling the number of pokies in town.
The local Council opposed the proposal and argued this view at the Victorian Commission for Gaming Regulation (as it was then called). As Castlemaine has a delicate local economy of family-run businesses, Council has adopted a policy that no further gaming venues be set up in town (the local Cumberland Hotel already houses about 30).
There are almost no chain stores in town, not even a supermarket giant and the Council put this policy in place due to community concern over how pokies would draw income away from local businesses.
The Society got around these barriers by leasing a building on State Government land that sits outside the local planning restrictions.
As part of its case at the Commission, the Council polled public opinion. It found that 72 per cent of local people did not want the venue to go ahead. Community opposition was the centrepiece of EPIC's case before VCAT.
EPIC is a community organisation comprising over 1,500 people from a town of only 7,000, and includes a broad cross-section of the Castlemaine community - with local businesses, artists, the local psychiatrist, problem gamblers and their family and friends all involved.