'Legislation disempowers communities': Councils hamstrung over pokies problem

8:26 am on 15 April 2021

Local councils are frustrated they can't get rid of unwanted pokie machines, saying the law gives them no power to do what's best for their communities.

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Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

In 2018 the Mayor of Ōpōtiki at the time, John Forbes, wrote to then Minister of Internal Affairs, Tracey Martin, to help him rid his town of pokie machines.

"Despite our best endeavours our loss from gambling per capita remains at twice the national average and continues to have a detrimental impact on our community ... we have exhausted all the avenues available to us under the Gambling Act and we are unable to strengthen the restrictions any further," the letter said.

He asked Martin to halve the number of machines in Ōpōtiki, reduce the jackpot amounts and for more funding to help addicted gamblers.

Ōpōtiki Mayor John Forbes

Former Mayor of Ōpōtiki, John Forbes. Photo: RNZ / Jo O'Brien

But, in the letter back from the minister, Forbes was told to consider contacting the Problem Gambling Foundation and the Salvation Army to get help for his town and was told the government planned to look at policy options in 2019.

Forbes says the council was hamstrung.

"We couldn't do anything about it. So, as much as the community wanted to reduce the number of pokies and the amount of harm it was doing in the community, we didn't have any power to do so."

He said it was frustrating central government did not trust local government to make that decision for itself.

"Central government's written the legislation that really disempowers communities to do something if they want to."

Under the Act council's can impose a sinking lid policy, which means new machines can not be brought in and if a venue closed the machines go with it.

Today, Wellington City councillors would vote to bring in a sinking lid, but analysis done by the research firm Dot Loves Data, found that, while pokie machine numbers were reducing under sinking lid, gambling spend had actually risen.

Director Justin Lester said while it was a useful tool, this proved it was not the sole answer.

"All it ends up doing is monopolising the spend in a new location. That creates then, an ability for those operators to make more money out of it and to attract new customers."

Lester, a former Mayor of Wellington, supported a yes vote today for a sinking lid, but said it was a shame councils could not do more.

Former Wellington mayor Justin Lester.

Former Mayor of Wellington, Justin Lester Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

Local Government NZ president Stuart Crosby agreed, saying councils had no real power.

"They are often approached by communities to say they either want them reduced or removed from a particular suburb for example, and of course councils are actually quite powerless."

In a LGNZ submission to the Ministry of Health in 2018, when it was consulting on gambling harm policy, chief executive Malcolm Alexander said the policies councils relied on "lack the teeth to meet community expectations".

"The lack of powers to meet communities' aspirations, particularly with regard to reducing the number of machines in a location, ultimately discourages participation as the review process increasingly becomes a pointless ritual," the submission said.

Three years after that letter from John Forbes, and that submission, Ōpōtiki's current mayor Lyn Riesterer said the problems for her town remained - alleviated only somewhat by a recent dumping of about 20 pokie machines by the iwi after it purchased a local tavern.

However she said the problem was not limited to the number of machines, Ōpōtiki also wanted its fair share of the pokie proceeds through community grants, saying its community was swallowed up in figures for the wider Bay of Plenty.

"I'll give you a strange example, the Bay of Plenty archery club received $60,000, and that would be listed as regional money into the community but there is no archery club in Ōpōtiki so we have not seen any money there."

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Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Tinetti agrees more could be done. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

The Minister of Internal Affairs Jan Tinetti said the government's focus was on minimising harm from gambling and last year just over $60 million was allocated over three years for that purpose.

She agreed more could be done though and has asked the department to work more closely with councils in an effort to strengthen local input into decisions made about gambling.

The minister should expect another letter from the people of Ōpōtiki. Lyn Riesterer said the issue remained on the workbook.

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