Jim Hopkins on current issues

Jim Hopkins is a Herald columnist

Jim Hopkins: Pokies work moral mandarins into pious lather

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Jim Hopkins. Photo / Fleur Cogle
Jim Hopkins. Photo / Fleur Cogle

Evils of gambling apparently don't apply to Lotto, sports betting or online gaming.

It's probably an accident of history, a forgotten consequence of the age that shaped us. Because we got started, you'll recall, as a country back in the days when Britannia ruled the waves and frequently waived the rules.

Which was all very well, until you studied the Bible - as most did back then - at which point, the moral shortcomings of imperial politics became a major issue for many in the growing middle class created by the industrial revolution.

Who then set out, with zealous enthusiasm, to purge Victoria's dominion of its many sins and omissions. The mid years of the 19th century were a high point for campaigners and crusaders. No cause was left unturned, no sin unstoned. For every excess of empire and the industrial revolution, there was somebody demanding reform.

The Chartists flourished, as did Wilberforce's abolitionists and the first suffragettes.

There were temperance crusaders, others demanding the emancipation of the working class, champions of literacy and decent working conditions, not to mention novelists rescuing chimney sweeps and even a Prime Minister - Gladstone - who would nightly roam the streets of London in search of 'fallen women' he could save.

And then there was us; last outpost of empire, imbued from the outset with the spirit of the age. Lest we forget, when the good colonists of Dunedin waded ashore, the first thing they did - within 24 hours of drying their boots - was form a Temperance Society.

Their virtuous intent still marks us. The moral perils may have diminished but our urge to right wrongs and fret about the iniquities of the world has not. Far from being passionless, we burn with zeal and pursue issues of virtue and disadvantage as enthusiastically as ever. In matters moral, our DNA's definitely Victorian.

And 172 years after Hobson signed the tenancy agreement, there remain few creatures in Outer Roa more ferocious than the host of middle class tutters convinced they know what's best for everybody else.

Displaying a steely piety the Victorians would instantly recognise, these zealots would happily ban what the poor like to eat, or drink (while insisting they should be allowed to smoke whatever they wish provided it isn't tobacco). Then they'd deal equally rigorously with discretion by demanding that the unfortunate wretches should be prevented from spending their money on anything deemed unsuitable by their self-appointed caregivers.

Gambling is the latest evil to obsess the witterers. No matter that 90 per cent of us (aged 18 or over) evidently participate in some form of gambling on a regular basis, it must be curbed.

Well, not Lotto, that's escaped the wowsers' ire, or sports betting, that's not in the gun either. Nor is online gambling, despite evidently attracting punters and siphoning money offshore at an increasing rate.

No, it's the pokies that have got the prigs a-twitter. Or, more precisely, the extra pokies there could be at SkyCity if it builds and pays for this proposed National Convention Centre.

Despite that, and despite the fact that taxpayers would, for once, get something for nothing, these pokies are an abhorrence, a moral scourge, the thin end of the gaming wedge, and must be stopped, at any cost. The supposition seems to be that if you put one more pokie in a room - especially one at SkyCity - an epidemic of gambling addiction will automatically follow.

Trouble is, if it did, it would be hard to spot. What those condemning this descent into turpitude don't mention is that there aren't a lot of problem gamblers. Taking the Pulse on Gambling and Problem Gambling in New Zealand (a report published by the Department of Internal Affairs) estimated 0.3 per cent to 0.7 per cent of adults (people over 18) were problem pathological gamblers and a further 0.6 per cent to 1.1 per cent were problem gamblers, making a total, in both categories, of 1.8 per cent. The Ministry of Health's 2002/03 New Zealand Health Survey had a slightly lower estimate. Its conclusion was that 1 per cent to 1.5 per cent of adults were problem gamblers, while the 2006/07 New Zealand Health Survey determined the problem affected fewer still - 0.3 per cent to 0.5 per cent of adults, i.e. people aged 15 or over.

So, even applying the highest estimate of harm (1.8 per cent), we can safely assume that 98.2 per cent of gamblers don't have, and won't get, a problem. And for those who do, there's a heap of money available. The Government's problem gambling levy - imposed only on gaming machines - yielded $18,627,092 in 2010/11, $18,842,584 in 2011/12 and will produce $17,952,931 in 2012/13. That's a total of $55,422,607 in 3 years to fund those engaged in the rehabilitation of problem gamblers.

Perhaps the real scandal is that so much money has, apparently, had so little effect. But the moral mandarins. would much rather sustain our great Victorian tradition and keep vehemently banging on about what's good for everybody else.

- NZ Herald

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