Editorial: Suspicions as anti-gambling voice silenced

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Photo / Greg Bowker
Photo / Greg Bowker

Revenge may well be a dish best served cold. It can also be best served by a third party, with no obvious fingerprints and in a way that offers plausible deniability.

So if the Government did indeed harbour a grudge against the Problem Gambling Foundation for its trenchant criticism of the SkyCity pokies-for-convention centre deal, the cut to its public funding cannot directly be pinned on the politicians. Try as the Opposition might to blame the Key Government, a careful trail of bureaucratic process has been laid, one that leads away from the Beehive.

The Ministry of Health's removal of most of the foundation's money, in favour of an alternative programme from the Salvation Army, was seemingly done by the bureaucratic book. Its intention to review how it funds services to problem gamblers was "signalled" in 2012. It ran a contestable tender. It had outsiders on its selection panel. It commissioned an accountancy firm to review how it was doing its review. It didn't tell the responsible minister the result until the end.

As that minister, Peter Dunne, said in reply to criticism from the Greens, Labour and the Public Service Association, the ministry "went beyond the requirements of best practice". Which could well confirm the critics in their cynicism. They know and the electorate knows public servants can pick up on political winds, anticipate their masters' prejudices and move to consider them. Not always to meet them, but to find a way for the political within the strict machinery of the state.

Whether ministers implied or bureaucrats inferred the Problem Gambling Foundation had become too loud an advocate against a favoured government initiative will probably never be known. The funding is substantial and so is the problem. There will certainly now be upheaval as the foundation faces closing its two offices and other services from mid-year. Its director, Graeme Ramsay, did not blame politicians directly but offered: "The effect of this decision will be to silence our voice. We have spoken out on behalf of our clients and communities against the harm from gambling caused mainly by pokies and casinos."

Interestingly, the funding was for clinical and public health services, not for the advocacy elements of the foundation's activities.

The Salvation Army, no mute friend to the gambling industry, is the beneficiary of the review and would surely win support from all sides for its care for victims. Yet it is a smaller service than the foundation and will need to expand its capability rapidly to maintain help for problem gamblers.

Independent services in any field that rely on government funding run the risk of the tap being turned off, often as a result of caprice rather than malice. Educators, health providers, laboratory testers and others have found their contracts overturned as officials opt for a cheaper and perhaps less complacent or controversial service. The entrenched bureaucracy can become intolerant of independent entities if they, too, come to look too permanent a part of the apparatus.

By any count, New Zealand has thousands of people for whom gambling is compulsive. The Salvation Army's Oasis service already deals with thousands within its broader treatments for addiction. The foundation had counselled 25,000 people over its 20 years.

The Government prides itself on a reduction in the numbers of poker machines nationwide but in Auckland the cuts are less obvious in certain districts. The increase in pokies at the casino in return for the convention centre will reverse most of Auckland's cut, albeit resulting in a proportionately higher number under stricter host responsibility conditions.

The Problem Gambling Foundation did good work among desperate souls.

Its voice may be silenced but let's hope the words "problem gambling" are not sanitised out of the debate.

- NZ Herald

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