Wellington considers ban on new pokie machines

8:09 am on 7 August 2020

A ban on any new pokies in Wellington is being proposed to help reduce the harm of problem gambling.

Poker Machines at the Mangere Cosmopolitan Club in South Auckland.

Poker Machines at the Mangere Cosmopolitan Club in South Auckland. Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Indira Stewart

Over $100,000 are spent on the class four pokie machines in the capital every day - $40 million last year - but there are criticisms over links to gambling addiction.

Data from the Problem Gambling Foundation shows that of those who seek professional assistance, around half are due to class 4 gambling.

A Wellington City Council meeting yesterday finalised a consultation document to gather public feedback on the ban idea.

The council proposes reducing the cap on the number of pokie machines. Currently there are 633 machines at 40 venues across the city, but the cap allows 747. If this proposal goes ahead, the cap would be reduced to 660, leaving room for only 27 extra machines across the entire city.

More crucially, the consultation will also include the option of a sinking lid policy, which the council has expressed as their preferred option.

The policy - if it comes into action - means when an existing pokie venue closes down, the council won't allow a new one to open up.

It would also mean venues won't be able to increase the number of pokies they have.

"We're so pleased that they've supported a sinking lid approach," said chief executive of the Problem Gambling Foundation, Paula Snowden.

"It's a slow-burner solution to a very big problem, we get that, but the challenge now is: let's look at what Wellington can do with that diverted gambling."

Pokies having a disproportionate effect on more deprived areas

Salvation Army captain Joe Serevi says part of the problem is the distribution of the pokie venues. Half of them are in areas of medium-high deprivation, another 13 are in areas of medium deprivation.

As a result, it's the people who can least afford to lose money to gambling, who are.

"They don't have any money, or they have little money," Serevi said.

"And most of them - that's why they go gambling. Then the money goes out, and then they can't get more money back. So the struggle is [with] the family, and it's with the children. And it's so hard because they don't know anything."

Pokies have been found to affect Māori, Pacific and Asian communities at least twice as much as Pākehā.

Sarevi says there's an urgent need to get the pokies out of those communities.

"If they put it in a community that has money, they can go into the pokie - that's fine. But not every community has money.

"If they get rid of it, then it helps the people take some responsibility of ownership, of how they use their money."

Paula Snowden, Chief Executive of the Problem Gambling Foundation

Paula Snowden, chief executive of the Problem Gambling Foundation. Photo: RNZ

It was Problem Gambling Foundations' Snowden who said while a sinking lid is the best option available to councils, there needs to be more pressure put on central government to free them up.

She wants to see a Gamblings Act provision - which would allow the Secretary of the Department of Internal Affairs to go to the minister, and ask for pokies not to be allowed to go into some communities.

"It's never been exercised, but we think it's something that central government could do to really help local councils make those policies more effective."

Not everyone supportive of the sinking lid

There are those who question the impact of reducing pokies - while the number of class four venues has declined over the past 15-years, the overall spend through that period has remained the same.

Additionally, there are a number of benefits which come out of the machines.

The hospitality sector itself benefits from their inclusion. Venues are entitled to retain up to 16 percent of the proceeds from class 4 gambling. This roughly equates to about $10,000 each venue.

But where their biggest benefit comes is from the grants provided from the proceeds. From 2017 to 2018, more than $60 million was given out in grants across the Wellington region.

There are currently 12 societies that collect the proceeds and dish them out.

In that same two year period 7,242 grants were provided. Sport was the main beneficiary, receiving nearly two thirds of that money, with health and welfare; education and research; community; and arts and culture all recipients.

Environmental and animal beneficiaries received the lowest at about $2000.

Gaming Machine Association chairperson Mike Knell said that money being taken away will be a blow.

"These are organisations from hospices, ambulances, through to community groups, through to sport.

"Simply to replace the money that is derived as profits from class four would mean finding about a billion dollars a year, in an economic sense."

Ahead of the meeting, the head of Government Relations at Sport New Zealand, Dave Adams said taking that funding model away would have a significant impact on those who depend on it.

"Play, active recreation and sport in this country is significantly funded through the proceeds of gambling, and class four is the biggest contributor," he said.

"Community clubs and organisations have become reliant on this funding, and it has been part of the funding landscape for 25 years. Any reduction of funds will have a real impact on the quality and access to play, active recreation and sport in Wellington.

"The question for you is: if not funding from class four, then where?"

But with the sinking lid policy being a slow reduction, city councillors argued there will be enough time to find other funding models.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs