I wanted to put my arguments in order before tonight's meeting, and I thought here's a great opportunity to multitask, and making the mysterious work of local government visible; I'll write a blog post about it!
Let me start by saying I do not see gambling as a sin, as a moral issue; that by limiting gambling opportunities we are acting as guardian angels protecting people from getting their souls dirty.
For me this is an issue about reducing harm. In the Puketapapa Local Board plan we said the following:
We want to live in a community that is free from harm caused by alcohol, gambling, drugs, and violence in the home… We want a sinking-lid policy applied to gambling machines in our area that does not allow relocation of machines. We will support the work of agencies working toward reducing preventable harm in our community.
It's worth noting that we added the section this is in, titled "Reducing Harm", in response to submissions received from the community stating that we needed to give this area more attention in our plan. We had already mentioned various aspects in a few places, but the strong feedback we received was that we should make it clearer and more prominent, so this is a direct example of community submissions making a difference, not least the submission we received from Hapai Te Hauora Tapui specifically on the issue of problem gambling. See, submissions can make a difference!
Here's a quote from a supportive email a constituent sent me recently:
The Government spends thousands on trying to help problem gamblers, yet they continue to feed them more opportunity.
This is a waste of our tax money and a waste of the problem gamblers program.
Pokie machines are of no worth to community. They only contribute to more damage, deception, suffering, advers[ity], destruction and addiction.
They ruin relationships, families, communities and the list could go on.
I say NO TO MORE POKIES.
The harm that problem gambling creates is undeniable. As a unionist I have seen how it can manifest at work, where someone who would never ever in a thousand years have considered stealing from their workplace or colleagues to buy alcohol will shift money between accounts in a dubious manner, will surreptitiously empty the drinks kitty, will take a loan from the business which they are sure they will pay back once the winnings come in. For some gambling can become an addiction, and the harm that that does, to them, to their family, to their community, is significant. The gambling problem of a single person impacts negatively on at least 5 people around them.
Gambling activities all have a component of luck, and a component of exploitation when it comes to those individuals who are problem gamblers. Pokie machines have no element of skill to them whatsoever - you put the money in, you push a button, you win or you don't. The Problem Gambling Foundation has labelled pokie machines the "most harmful form of gambling as 77% to 85% of problem gamblers use them as their primary mode of gambling." In 2008 PGFNZ estimated that 42% of pokie machines revenue was coming from the 3% of users who are problem gamblers.
Honestly I just don't see why we need more pokies. DIA figures, quoted by PGFNZ, show we already have one machine for every 206 people, nationally. In more economically deprived areas there's one machine for every 75 people. And it's worth pointing out, in the context of this blog, that it is the accessibility and increase in pokie machines that has led to a large increase in problem gambling amongst women.
Why do people who can't afford to gamble more? And why do those who profit from pokies seek to increase their numbers, especially in poor areas? Because it is a hope tax. There is so much in life now that we can't do unless we have money and there is often little chance to earn through work the kind of money that can change your life. A lucky windfall is the only option for many, and I can understand the lure of gambling in that regard; when I was first at home with my eldest son and really wanted to stay home I paid the hope tax, buying a lotto ticket every week, because such a win seemed the only way we could make that happen.
The number of pokie machines in New Zealand has been trending downward and that is great. Why would we want to reverse that trend? And in particular why would we want to do so by increasing the number at Sky City, an enterprise that largely makes its profits from problem gambling, and has recently been shown to not be living up to their host responsibilities in this area? Casinos are required to give even less of the funds raised through pokies back to the community - only 2.5% of profits, as opposed to 37.2% from machines out there in pubs and clubs. 500 new machines at Sky City would result in 250 to 400 new, extra, problem gamblers. Sky City have given out $24.2M in community grants since they started in 2001, which sounds like a lot until you consider that their profit in the FIRST HALF of the last financial year was over $78M.
New Zealand has also become a major testing ground for the developers of pokie machines. They use psychologists to develop these devices in ways that will suck the most money out of the user. And they test them in our casinos, before they are rolled out to other parts of the world.
As leaders in our community, indeed more than that, as decision-makers in our community, local government politicians have an obligation to do what we can to limit harm. Part of our obligation to our community is to not remain silent while others in the great democratic family of Auckland Council are considering decisions that will do great harm indeed.