9 Jun 2021

Council u-turns on pokie rules after local outcry

1:04 pm on 9 June 2021

Locals in the King Country town of Ōtorohanga are claiming victory after forcing district councillors to backtrack on their plan to relax a clampdown on pokie machines.

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File photo. Photo: RNZ/ Dan Cook

The debate over the controversial gambling policy came to a head at a public meeting on Tuesday.

Ōtorohanga District Council decided last October to ditch its sinking lid policy, voting instead to loosen the rules and potentially open the flood gates to more gaming machines.

But after months of public consultation and dozens of submissions, councillors were forced to change their minds.

Mayor Max Baxter campaigned to continue with the sinking lid policy and was thrilled with the way his councillors voted.

"Common sense prevailed at the end of the day.

"We're here to represent our community, and if we're not listening to what our community is saying, we're not doing our job," he said.

Eighty submissions were made during public consultation, only five wanted to change the policy from the long-standing sinking lid.

Deb Hill, manager of the social services group Ōtorohanga Support House, said the decision was democracy is action.

"I'm absolutely stoked. That is the best outcome that we were hoping for. The community voice that has come through really strongly today has obviously swayed some opinions. We're really, really pleased," she said.

Before the vote, councillors heard from locals, experts, and representatives of the gaming community.

The president of Ōtorohanga Sports Club, Paul Singh, campaigned to retain the sinking lid.

He said the vast majority of locals didn't want more gaming machines in the community.

"I'm the president of Ōtorohanga Sports Rugby Club, and I'm also involved in Federated Farmers, so I think I'm fairly well connected to our community.

"Look, I haven't meet one person in this community who thinks ditching the sinking lid policy is a good idea," he said.

By law, 40 percent of net pokie machine proceeds must be distributed as grants.

Clubs adhere to a different set of rules and aren't required to give back, but often do.

Singh argued that communities who don't rely on these proceeds are far better off.

"It's always a temptation to go for the easy money. But I think it's detrimental to the club in the long term," he said.

Jarrod True, who spoke on behalf of the Gaming Association of New Zealand and Clubs NZ, disagreed.

He said communities could suffer without pokies.

"With gaming machines, societies have a policy of returning the funds back to the local communities in which they were generated. That's great if you've got machines, but it means that there's no local machines, there's no local grant funding," he said.

True argued that taking machines away won't tackle problem gambling.

"People have always gambled, and people will always gamble in the future. All you need is two coins," he said.

True also said that New Zealand has a very low problem gambling rate.

But Hohepa Walker from the Problem Gambling Foundation told councillors that national statistics don't capture the reality of addiction.

He said many people suffer from problem gambling, but they suffer silently.

"You can go into a pokie venue, spend $500 on pokies and walk out and no one would ever know. You see, this is why it's under the carpet.

"You wouldn't smell it on their breath, they don't stagger down the street. By the time they realize they have a problem like Bondi Rescue and put their hand up and say 'hey, I need some help here', they are well under water," Hohepa said.

His view was reiterated by Ōtorohanga local, and anti-pokie campaigner Maraea Hetet.

"I am Mana wāhine. I stand and speak on behalf of all those people who can't speak or don't speak for themselves," she said.

Hetet gathered over 40 submissions to stick with the sinking lid policy.

"I'm 57 years old and, for more than half of my life, I have been a problem gambler," she said.

Now in recovery, Hetet said when she heard that the council could allow more pokies into the community, it lit a fire in her belly.

She told councillors said she wanted to speak out about just how damaging gaming machines can be.

Hetet said Tuesday's result was a great victory and hopes to see a total elimination of pokies machines in the community in the future.

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