Yesterday I was in Christchurch with the Commerce Committee hearing the verbal submissions on the Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill. There were around 29,000 written submissions on the bill, with about 400 or so submitters wanting to give oral presentations so the committee is working our way through them.
The bill concentrates on “Class 4 gambling” – which refers to the pokie machines in pubs and clubs so casinos, who are regulated by other laws, are left out of it. The aim of the bill is to reduce gambling harm – and the reason there were so many submissions is that, while the bill seeks to introduce harm-minimisation technology to pokie machines and is also aiming to give more control to local communities to reduce the number of pokies in their areas, it also suggests a major overhaul of the way the funding that goes to community organisations is distributed.
The existing 47 pokie trusts are clearly unhappy about this. Between them they distribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year and some of them – like Pub Charity – used those funds to encourage those who had received grants from them to submit against the bill.
So the Commerce Committee has been hearing presentation after presentation from very good and worthy organisations that are afraid that their funding sources will dry up if the bill is passed. Organisations like Alzheimers NZ or Arthritis NZ or Taylors Mistake Surf Life Saving Club. They all say they are dependent on pokie money – the moral hazard for them is that around 40% of that pokie money comes from people with gambling problems.
We also heard from sports organisations. Sports Canterbury receives around $10 million per year and say they cannot offer the services they offer without the gambling money and cited the example of a fun run that they were co-ordinating for around 2000 people which they said they wouldn’t be able to hold if they didn’t get funding (despite charging entry fees that would provide between $10,000 – 20,000).
The most thought provoking submissions I have heard so far were from the Social Justice division of the Anglican Care Canterbury/Westland and an independent media organisation called ‘Make Collective” and the Christchurch Methodist Mission. Each, in their own way, lamented the fact that the discussion around gambling harm had become so tied up with what happens to the gambling funds. And they’re right. The issue of what happens when pokies trap people into harmful gambling has become sidelined.
One submitter went further and called pokie funds for organisations ‘hush money’. He told of his experience of feeling pressured not to submit in favour of the bill by others who accessed those funds (for genuinely good projects).
I think he’s right. We need to wean our community organisations off their addiction to pokie money so we can have a proper conversation about gambling harm where self-interest takes a back seat.