Debate on pokies policy

By Ged Cann

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Pokie machines came under the microscope at Hamilton City Council's Strategy and Policy Committee meeting last week with a proposed amendment to allow existing venues to relocate their pokie machines if they moved location.

The current Gambling Venue Policy dictates an establishment may relocate machines only when moving from a non-permitted to a gambling permitted area.

The proposed amendment would allow them also to move within permitted areas as well, a measure which a number of councillors criticised for weakening the sinking-lid policy.

The meeting was formatted as a hearing for submitters and the final decision as to whether it goes to full Council will be held at the next Strategy and Policy Committee meeting on August 30.

Hearings included testimonials from New Zealand Racing Board solicitor Jarrod True, who said relocations enabled venues to move out of earthquake-prone venues and created fairness in the event of fire or public work acquisitions.

"If a venue cannot relocate a landlord knows this, he knows the value of machines. Machines are an important part of the business. If the landlord knows the operator simply cannot move next door, that comes to play when it comes to setting rents. We will see unreasonable rents being charged," Mr True said.

He said operators would become entrenched in their venues, which may become run down, using Te Rapa Tavern as an example, which recently opened new $3m premises.

He also claimed relocation allowed venues on larger plots of land to move to smaller areas, theoretically allowing for the building of affordable housing.

Councillor Dave Macpherson said it was "interesting" to hear the Racing Board advancing social causes to justify relocation of pokie machines.

Problem Gambling Association spokesperson Eru Loach also presented, stating relocation did not reduce harm.

"Removing the machines and accessibility to the machines is what will move us in that direction. If we don't go down that pathway we may be moving into a better location where people might be more inclined to gamble."

Mr Loach quoted a meta-analysis study of New Zealand which found 41-60 per cent of money that went into pokie machines came from problem gamblers.

Population Health representative Richard Wall said the organisation would like a true sinking lid policy and opposed any relocations.

He said thousands of people were negatively impacted by gambling, with Pacifica and Maori as well as low economic groups the worst affected.

Also at the hearing was Grassroots Trust, a Class 4 Gambling Trust which, under the Gambling Act 2003, generates funding for communities through the supply and operation of machines in bars.

In the year ended March 2016 Hamilton groups received more than $4.3m from the Trust, distributed to various sport, education and community groups.

Grassroots Trust operates pokie machines in Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Hawkes Bay and Taranaki. Of all takings from pokie machines 42 per cent is given away to community groups throughout New Zealand.

Grassroots representative Tim Wood said the trust supported the changes, pointing to the funding generated. He disagreed with some councillors that Hamilton's was not a true sinking-lid policy.

"Since December 2006 Hamilton City had 29 venues and 570 machines. Ten years on and we only have 28 venues operating now and 420 machines."

Councillor Andrew King asked if Mr Wood believed the money raised for community projects outweighed the damage done by problem gambling.

"Is Grassroots' justification for the harm for some of the money that goes through the machine that it's for the greater good for the $4.3m that you put back into the community? Do you see that as a greater good than the harm done by families going hungry?" Mr King said.

Mr Wood said there were mechanisms in place to reduce harm at Grassroots venues.

"If you weighed up the two the good that's generated for the community on a percentage basis probably does outweigh the harm," Mr Wood replied.

Councillor King criticised the council for bringing in increasingly permissive gambling policies.

Mr Macpherson also suggested that any requests to relocate within a gambling permitted areas should be brought individually before Council for approval or rejection.

Committee chair Angela O'Leary said these options would be included in the deliberation documents given at the August 30 meeting.

- Hamilton News

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