Who exactly is it who wants more pokies?

01 May 2012


John Key's deal with SkyCity Casino to bankroll a convention centre in exchange for more pokies appears to have stirred up more public and media outcry than the prime minister or anyone else would have expected.

The drivers for this reaction are complex.

Part of it can be put down to increasing concerns about the widespread negative impacts gambling is having on our loved ones and in our communities.

Part of it can be put down to the unhealthy alliances that appear to be forming between politicians and the barons of addictive-consumption industries such as alcohol and gambling. But probably the most galling aspect of this deal is the lack of public visibility and accountability.

Mr Key has clearly joined a long line of politicians who have approached gambling as a quick-fix for challenging (and expensive) social and economic development issues and who have set up arrangements with little regard for public views on the matter.

Way back before the 1990s, New Zealanders enjoyed two main forms of gambling: track betting and the Golden Kiwi – low-intensity, low-potency forms of betting. Gambling boomed in the 1990s. In 1991 pokies arrived, then casinos, then different lottery products. The rapid proliferation catapulted us into more potent forms of gambling and, accordingly, into losing 10-fold the amounts of money we had previously.

The pattern of growth was ad hoc and reactive: Government amended the law and a new casino was opened; other gambling sectors cried foul so the law was amended for pokies to have higher jackpots; more outcry, more amendments and Lotteries get Keno; more outcry, more amendments and the racing industry got offshore internet betting; more complaints, more amendments and another casino was opened, followed by Lotteries getting Powerball, followed by pokies permitted in new venues and so on.

Each allowance for one part of the industry triggers claims of unfairness followed by amendments relaxing restrictions for another part of the industry.

This merry-go-round of different gambling sectors claiming their share of allowances is a familiar pattern that drove gambling expansion in Australia, the United States and in Europe.

Of course the Government could see from what was happening overseas that this boom could not continue indefinitely. It risked uncontrolled growth which could damage the gambling industry as a whole; it had to put on the brakes.

The slowdown began in the late 1990s with a moratorium on new casinos, then, in the early 2000s, a comprehensive bill, the future Gambling Act 2003, was prepared with principles that included controlled growth, minimising harm, community benefit and community consultation.

However, despite the Government's guiding hand with each of these increases, at no point do I recall clear public consultation on whether the broader public wanted these new forms of gambling. Nor any consultation on how much gambling we really needed. Who asked for pokies in the first place? Who asked whether 18,000 pokies was a desirable number? Who asked whether losing $2 billion per year (mostly by those with low incomes) was the level of gambling we were comfortable with? Who asked whether we really wanted casinos to dominate the centre of our major cities?

Indeed, both in New Zealand and overseas, there has never been, to my knowledge, a popular movement promoting more gambling. The impetus invariably comes from the industry itself in search of more profits and politicians looking for solutions for other problems.

Mr Key's back-room deal is true to this tradition. He is demonstrating an uncharacteristic but resolute disregard for public views and concerns about the current state of play with gambling.

But what's worse is that this "minor" increase in pokie numbers will trigger another outcry from other gambling sectors which will lead to further law changes and further increases in gambling consumption. More casinos? More internet betting? More pokies? Again, as citizens we have very little influence over what shapes our gambling environments.

Peter Adams is an Associate Professor in the School of Population Health, and the author of Gambling, Freedom and Democracy (NY, Routledge). This article first appeared in the DominionPost on 27 April 2012.