Timaru council proposes to retain gambling policy

9:42 am on 10 November 2022

Timaru District Council is bucking the nationwide trend of local bodies cracking down on pokie machines.

Figures released last year showed over half the people in Auckland seeking treatment for gambling addictions are from south Auckland. And just over half of those seeking help are gaming machine users.

Community groups rely heavily on grants from pokie machines. Photo: BRUCE MERCER/STUFF

It has proposed to retain its gambling policy, which is currently under review, and does not include any bans to new venues or machines, a move proven to reduce gambling spend.

Timaru topped the Canterbury region for the highest annual pokie spend per adult at $264, almost $50 higher than the national average, according to Department of Internal Affairs and Problem Gambling Foundation statistics.

And 11 of its 13 venues were in medium or medium-high deprivation areas.

An independent report commissioned by the council estimated there were around 80 problem gamblers in its community, and 700 who were at risk of becoming problem gamblers.

Local bodies review their gambling policies every three years, and the Problem Gambling Foundation said there was a trend towards introducing policies like sinking lids - banning new venues or machines.

But Timaru District councillor Peter Burt said he was happy with the status quo.

"We believe that we have a reasonably good handle on the hospitality industry that allows that service.

"Therefore we have a comfort in understanding that to date it's been working, and we have got a comfort to know and understand that for us anyway, in terms of our community, it's going to work into the future."

The council operated within the law and it had bigger problems to deal with, like gang crime, Burt said.

Community groups relied heavily on grants from pokie machines, he said.

Department of Internal Affairs figures showed South Canterbury Hospice was the second biggest recipient of grants from pokies in 2021.

The hospice received $150,000, and general manager Peter O'Neill said while he did not like having to rely on pokie funding, there was a massive shortfall without it.

"It's a catch-22 isn't it, be great just to say to someone, 'could you please give us this much money, and we'll do the rest thanks', and that's lovely," O'Neill said.

"It's not the real world. So, would you be happy for your taxes to go up, to meet that?"

But no amount of community support would make up for the damage caused by gambling, Problem Gambling Foundation spokesperson,Andree Froude said.

It was a huge concern that Timaru was not following other councils' lead with a sinking lid policy, she added.

"We've seen council after council implementing sinking lid policies, because they know that pokies in communities are the most harmful form of gambling, and they want to reduce the harm in their communities.

"Our concern is that there is harm going on in the [Timaru] community, and that the council is not proposing the best policy that they can to reduce that harm, because they're still allowing for more pokies."

The council said it was proposing not to change its policy because of a long-term decline in the number of gaming machines and venues in the district.

"The current policy appears to be striking an appropriate balance between minimising problem gambling harm while enabling the legitimate participation in gambling," its website said.

But a recovering gambling addict who spent 20 years at the pokies in Timaru said the council's proposal was not good enough. RNZ has agreed to not to name him.

"I find it really hard to find that there's a positive in any of this," he said.

"I don't really see there being a balance.

"These machines aren't designed to give you a balance, they're designed to take your money.

"To me it just seems a bit of a cop out by them."

Public consultation on the policy closes on Friday 11 November.

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