Watering down of bill to reduce gambling harm is not the end, it's a first step, writes Te Ururoa Flavell

I've learnt some hard lessons here in Parliament, but the biggest is that even if you don't get what you want, you don't stop trying. The Maori Party came here not just to make a noise, but to make a difference.

My private member's bill to reduce gambling harm, and the politics that have revolved around it, epitomise the challenges that we face as MPs in the kawanatanga (government) system.

Wading through the politics and rhetoric is one half of the battle, but the other is all about simple maths. If you don't have the numbers to pass a bill, then it's over.

In the case of the Gambling (Gambling Harm Reduction) Amendment Bill, the maths became clear not long after the bill was drawn from the ballot.


National supported it to its first reading only because of their relationship accord with the Maori Party, but we knew pushing forward on addressing the systemic issues related to class 4 gambling would be a challenge.

The thing is, while the maths side may be simple, the political side is much more complex.

Parliament is not a place for dreamers who run and hide away when their dreams are crushed.

It is a place where negotiation happens, where consensus takes place, where change can happen if you know how the system works, and you are prepared to stick at it for the long haul.

When my bill came back from the select committee it was "gutted". That's right, there is no denying it.

But I wasn't about to pull out on those communities who desperately need change. So I started working with the Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon Chris Tremain, on how to advance the many issues that my bill sought to address.

The result? Well, it is a broad package of class 4 gambling reforms - and while my bill has been plucked within an inch of its life, we have been promised that many of its precious plumes will be tucked away in a new home, within the regulatory and legislative reforms proposed by the Government.

The changes announced by Mr Tremain this week are a direct result of my bill, which was a catalyst for action. We raised the issue, we put it on the agenda, and this wider package is the result of our hard work.

However the system processes the initiatives, or whoever's name the bill goes under, the main thing is that we are seeing forward movement on issues which affect our families.

Sure, it's not everything we wanted, and on that front I am extremely disappointed. But what we have in place now is a step in the right direction - and incremental change is better than no change at all.

While the bill and the reforms do not fully achieve the transformation we sought for our communities, I believe we have raised awareness of the rorting in the current system, and have highlighted the urgent need to ensure that communities, whanau and individuals are kept safe from the harmful activities of some of these associations.

I am now thinking on the next step in this issue, and in particular taking aim at the racing industry, and their exemption from the current package of reforms.

It was the Problem Gambling Foundation who urged the Maori Party to do something to address the harm caused by pokie machines.

They told us of the impact on individuals and whanau, the consequences including relationship breakdowns, financial ruin, psychological distress, criminal offending, imprisonment, and in some cases suicide, and of course of the need to change the law to protect families. That remains uppermost in my mind.

At the end of the day, I know too many whanau whose lives have been turned upside down by a gambling addiction to give up on them for the sake of making a political stand.

Families living on Struggle Street; desperate to make a better life for their kids by relying on the Wheel of Fortune. The circumstances for these families drive me forward; I will keep fighting to make it right for them, and in particular the children who bear the brunt of gambling addiction.

I am disappointed that some MPs and parties who have stood on the sidelines for years and not fronted up on the issue will condemn our whanau to the status quo, by voting against my bill to make a political point.

I am even more disappointed that some have taken the opportunity to have a dig at me. They should target those who seek to preserve the current system, not the person or party who made a stand on the issue on behalf of our communities and who successfully put gambling harm on the agenda.

There is a saying in Maori - kia mate ururoa, kei mate wheke: fight like a shark to the bitter end, not like an octopus!

I can tell you hand on heart that this is not the end of the war on gambling. The first shots have been fired, but we have a lot of work to do to disarm the one armed bandit for good.

Te Ururoa Flavell is a Maori Party MP.
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