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Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: No need for casino to gamble

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Instead of fewer pokies, poor communities are weighed down under more. Photo / Derek Flynn
Instead of fewer pokies, poor communities are weighed down under more. Photo / Derek Flynn

I was in an elevator with a senior gambling executive five years ago. It was a few days before John Key ousted Helen Clark's government.

We chatted about what might happen in the gambling industry if National became government. He surprised me by claiming Key would be Tourism Minister.

My lift companion smiled when I responded that a prime minister doesn't take on a portfolio traditionally delegated to a junior cabinet minister.

He winked that Key was committed to the "leisure" sector in its broadest sense. A few weeks earlier, a SkyCity senior manager had said something similar about tourism, that it and gambling were bedfellows.

A few days after Key's election victory party - at the SkyCity casino - the new Prime Minister did, indeed, appoint himself to the post.

It seems gambling bosses do not bet their fortune on chance.

In my view, Key has worked closely with gambling bosses, and the extra pokies-for-a-convention centre deal should have disabused any doubters of that.

But the gutting of Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell's private member's bill to control gambling is something even the most optimistic gambling owners could never have expected.

Flavell's humiliation was compounded by a plaintive plea that anything was better than nothing. I struggle to see what the "anything" he actually got was.

The bill's original intent was to stop pokie machines raking in cash from poor communities and to give local councils the power to close or downsize pokie venues in those areas. National deleted the proposals from the bill.

Stunningly, National went further and amended the bill to remove the current nine machine maximum for pre-2001 operators. Pokie owners will now be able to provide more gambling at existing venues as well as giving them a commercial advantage over any newcomers.

Flavell's bid for 80 per cent of pokie profits to be distributed in the communities the money comes from was tossed out too. Money will be taken from poor communities and, as happens now, distributed to wealthier neighbourhoods. As a laughable compromise, National will hope to raise the donations from the current 37 per cent to 40 per cent in two years' time.

Suggested controls on addictive gamblers have quietly been omitted.

National knows that the Maori Party must do well in the Ikaroa-Rawhiti by-election this Saturday or they are finished. The Maori Party has been left desperately trying to convince Maori voters they aren't National's poodles.

Frankly, Flavell would have done more for his leadership ambitions and his party's electoral chances if he'd publicly told National to shove their amendments. Instead, he has accepted them.

Is it any wonder National will be left with no electoral coalition partners in a year's time?

- Herald on Sunday

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