Reducing pokie harm no simple task

Whakatāne District Council is considering tightening its sinking lid policy on gambling machines as a way to minimise gambling harm. Photo Troy Baker.

Over the past year, $11.7 million was lost on pokie machines in the Whakatāne district.

This equates to $447 per adult in the district, almost double the national average of $239 per adult.

In return, the district received around $1.5 million in grants to various organisations from class four gambling trusts, although this was around half the amount the district normally received in pre-Covid-19 years.

These were just some of the figures Whakatāne district councillors were presented with last week during submissions to the council’s three-yearly review of its Gambling Venues Policy.

Councillors had hoped that adding weight to the sinking lid on the council’s gambling venue policy would help alleviate gambling harm but after listening to submitters and deliberating on its Gambling Venues Policy review they were left unsure and felt the issue needed further investigation.

The submissions hearing followed a month-long consultation period.

The council’s current policy caps the number of consents for gambling machines, or pokies, at 193 – the number of consents currently held.

The idea of the policy was that no new consents could be issued and so the number of machines would drop to the national average as businesses closed or stopped using gaming machines.

When the policy was set three years ago, the district had 179 machines across 12 venues.

However, as some venues already had more consents than they had machines in operation, the number of machines has continued to climb.

There are now 188 gambling machines in Whakatāne and another five consents for machines in Edgecumbe, not in use.

In February, Whakatāne District Council put forward four proposals designed to strengthen the policy.

The first of these was to clarify the policy’s wording, making it clear that the council would not grant consent for any new gaming machine licences or for new gaming venues to be established.

Other proposals were that existing gaming venue licences could not be transferred to a new location in the district; that if two clubs wished to merge, they must operate their gaming machines from an existing venue, and that no consents be granted for new stand-alone TAB venues.

Since submissions opened on February 25, 58 official submissions were received, with most in favour of the changes.

Opposition was mainly from gaming trusts and those in favour included problem gambling harm prevention agencies.

Whakatāne resident Yvonne Preece, who has previously held a management position in a casino and undergone training in the identification and implementation of policies to minimise problem gambling, gave an oral presentation.

She described the policy that has been in place since 2019 as a failure.

“Despite aiming to reduce the number of machines the actual number has increased by nine.”

Preece agreed with the proposed amendments to the policy but said they did not go far enough, though she conceded that councils had limited legal parameters to control the growth of gambling.

Another submitter, Tim Wood, from the Grassroots Trust, said that the reason the number of machines had risen by nine since 2019 was that there had been a High Court decision in relation to the Matatā Hotel.

The court decided that the establishment should have rights to nine machines that weren’t previously operating in the hotel.

Among the points made by the gambling trust representatives was that as the number of gambling machines reduced, gamblers turned to online gambling.

“In the past three or four years we have seen the growth of online gambling that has coincided with the reduction in our machine numbers,” Jarrod True, Gaming Machine Association representative said.

More than 60 per cent of TAB turnover is now done from phones or tablets. In 2018, Lotto’s online spend was around $200 million, now it’s around $430 million. Sky City has its own online, offshore based casino. In 2018 it had 25,000 registered players, spending $250 million, that has now almost doubled to 49,000 players with close to $800 million spent.

“Offshore-based online gambling doesn’t generate any local grants or employment. It makes no contribution to the New Zealand Government by way of tax, is not regulated and offers greater prizes,” said True.

The gaming machine trusts were also opposed to the proposal not to allow gambling machines to be transferred to a new location. Mr True said relocation was a very important harm-minimisation tool.

“It enables venues to move out of undesirable areas such as residential areas and high deprivation areas or areas that might be close to a church or a school or early childhood centre into a more desirable area. “If we don’t allow relocation, it simply entrenches those venues in undesirable locations.”

During deliberations, councillor Julie Jukes acknowledged the impact gambling had on families but said after listening to submissions she wasn’t sure the recommendation not to grant consent for relocation was something she wanted to support.

“I’m going to do a bit more research ... but from what I hear, under some circumstances it can actually be a good thing to allow them to relocate. It’s not as clear cut as I originally thought.”

Councillor Lesley Immink agreed. “After hearing some of those rationales, it seemed to have more positive impact if we did allow relocations.”

Councillor John Pullar said he felt the current policy was working well and he did not know why they were bothering tinkering with it.

"If it was working then our numbers of machines in use wouldn’t have gone up in the last triennium,” Mayor Judy Turner said. “I would want to know what would be the criteria by which somebody could move them.”

Councillor Gavin Dennis suggested putting in place a policy that venues could be relocated on condition they had a 15-20 percent reduction in the number of gambling machines.

“That would assist with your overall reduction but allow people to move out of deprived areas and upgrade their facilities.”

Council staff will prepare a report based on the submissions and councillors’ deliberations with consideration of options and a recommendation to the strategy and policy committee to adopt on May 19.

-Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

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