colours and numbers light up a gaming machine

Backlash over the hospitality giant’s plan to expand slot machines in Alice Springs pubs

Hospitality giant Iris Capital is looking to add dozens more slots at venues across Alice Springs just weeks after buying several of the city’s biggest hotels and pubs for $60 million.

The move is facing major backlash as community members express concerns about more slots in a region already grappling with deep social issues exacerbated by the gaming industry.

The Sydney-based company, which is run by billionaire Sam Arnaout, has published public notices in NT News saying it has applied for licenses from the Director of Gaming Machines to build 40 machines at Uncles Tavern, the Gap View Hotel and add to the Todd Tavern.

If approved, it would be the first time Uncles Tavern has hosted slots and would dramatically expand the company’s gaming footprint in Alice Springs, which already includes more than 300 slots at Lasseter’s Hotel Casino.

Sam Arnaout’s Iris Capital has bought several of the city’s biggest hotels and pubs.(ABC Alice Springs: Samantha Jonscher)

“It’s not about building a better community”

Michael Liddle, an Alyawerre man and councilor for Alice Springs Town Council, said increasing the number of slot machines in pubs would have a serious impact on the most disadvantaged members of the community.

“As far as I know, [Iris Capital] is a company that invests a lot of money in the city, but the purpose of the investment is not to build a better community,” he said.

Michael Liddle, a senior Alyawerre man from central Australia, sits outside.
Councilor Michael Liddle says Iris Capital is not helping to build a better community.(ABC: Oliver Gordon)

Mr Liddle, who has long been an advocate for better mental health and well-being for Indigenous men, said he didn’t think the company’s strategy was aligned with the council’s goals.

And that’s despite Mayor Matt Paterson throwing his full support behind Mr Arnaout’s investment juggernaut.

“The Alice Springs community needs to be protected,” Mr Liddle said.

“The many people who pay fees and use services need to be protected because of the negative outcomes that this type of investment can produce, and it already has a basis.”

Use venues to their “capacity”.

In a statement, a spokesman for Iris Capital said the company is committed to using its newly acquired venues at their full “capacity”.

The Northern Territory government has backed the company’s $250 million investment pipeline for the outback town and last year agreed to set the slot machine tax rate at 15 percent for the next decade.

For the 2020-21 fiscal year, the NT government took in more than $12 million in slot machine taxes, but that number was likely much higher over the past 12 months thanks to the comeback of COVID-19.

Slot machines are more addictive than other forms of gambling

Consulting gambling researcher Dr. Matthew Stevens said evidence suggests slots are significantly more addictive than other forms of gambling.

dr  Matt Stevens stands with his arms crossed and faces the camera with a sidewalk and trees in the background.
dr Matthew Stevens says research shows slots are more addictive than other forms of gambling.(ABC: Michael Donnelly)

“For example, it’s a very small number of people who play these machines on a weekly basis, but we know that 50 percent or more of those people who play them on a weekly basis have problems and are harmed by their playing.”

In the Northern Territory there is a cap of 1,699 slot machines that can be operated in pubs and clubs. The number of slot machines in the two casinos is not included in this limit.

create opportunities for tourists

Hospitality NT, a membership-based umbrella organization representing the hospitality industry, has staunchly defended Iris Capital’s Alice Springs slots expansion.

posed headshot of a man standing smiling on a pub porch.  Top button open
Mr Bruce says more slot machines will create a better experience for tourists visiting the Red Centre.(ABC: Terry McDonald)

The managing director, Alex Bruce, said it would create a better deal for tourists and locals and would follow all the rules set out by the NT government.

“It’s a legitimate and legal way of entertaining tourists and locals alike,” he said.

“There are half a million tourists in the Red Center that we are targeting to create more experiences… They’re going to see a boom in better food, better accommodation options and, yes, gaming will be part of the services.”

Mr Bruce argued that the gambling industry is well regulated and problem gambling is not a major problem in the territory.

“This is largely a southern fight that people, for lack of a better term, are trying to import into the territory,” he said.

Gambling and Licensing Minister Chansey Paech did not answer questions about the government’s decision to give the green light to Iris Capital’s major acquisition and business strategy.

Three slot machines are empty in a pub.
The NT government imposed a cap of 1,699 slot machines, but that doesn’t include casinos.(ABC)

In a statement, Mr Paech said he was aware of slot machine license applications but had no say in their approval.

“Decisions on slot machine license applications are made by the slot machine director at the Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce,” he said.

“The Northern Territory Government has placed restrictions on the number of machines available throughout the territory, including restrictions on individual venues.”

The Director of Gaming Machines Office has been contacted for comment.

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