A miracle took place in Parliament this week when National turned wine into water and managed to get away with it without the consumer - the Maori Party - appearing to object.

This miracle related to Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell's private member's bill to reduce gambling harm.

That bill went into the select committee thick and hearty, packed full of the fruits of the vine. It emerged as a watery brew made with a few dregs from the barrel.

Admittedly there were a few indigestible elements in Flavell's wine.


But by the time the "compromising" was done, the only parts of the original bill left standing were the title and the purpose clause, which still optimistically declared that the bill would reduce harm from gambling.

Below that were four pages of crossed out text where Flavell's carefully thought out proposals once sat and one brand-spanking-new provision which bore no resemblance to anything originally in the bill.

Flavell's proposal to allow local councils to close or downsize pokie venues in poor areas had gone. Instead, pokie operators will be allowed to move without losing any of their pokie machines. Currently, pokie operators who move to a new venue can install a maximum of only nine machines because of restrictions put in place in 2001. The new proposal in Flavell's bill will allow those operators who set up before 2001 with more machines to keep all of them, rather than downsizing.

It took a while to figure out how allowing pokie operators to keep a larger number of pokie machines than would otherwise be allowed would reduce the harm caused by gambling.

Internal Affairs Minister Chris Tremain had the answer: it will be an incentive for operators in low socio-economic areas to move to rather posher areas where their clientele will not suffer as much from losing a few quid. Councils will be able to stipulate which areas pokie operators can move from, and to, under the new rule - and Tremain said it would be restricted to moving from areas where problem gambling was an issue.

But no operators can be forced to move. Instead, Tremain argued they will do so out of the good of their own hearts because of public concern at their presence in their current communities and because wealthier areas could deliver greater profits. This seems to ignore the reality that overheads in wealthier areas or the CBD are significantly higher than low-income areas and that those operators, predominantly pubs, will be giving up a loyal customer base to move to an area where people may not be as inclined to play the pokies and there was greater competition, such as SkyCity's casino.

The rest of Flavell's original initiatives included requiring 80 per cent of pokie profits to go back into the communities they came from and for operators to adopt gambling problem devices such as facial recognition for problem gamblers, or cards that limited the time and money gamblers could spend.

The changes have seen these reduced from Flavell's requirements in law to measures that could be taken by way of regulation, depending on the whim of the Minister of Internal Affairs of the day. Of the first, Tremain has said the current return to local communities is 37 per cent on average. He hopes to lift that to 40 per cent in two years.

Of the second, he has argued that further consultation is required to assess what actually works, and then he might look at acting on it, if it will not impose onerous compliance costs on operators.

Regardless of the merits of the changes now proposed, there remains the question of whether Flavell should have agreed to plough on with his bill rather than stand on principle, withdraw it and simply have the Government put through its bedraggled remains as part of the wider Government bill tweaking the system.

Judicious compromise is part and parcel of getting a member's bill put through. But Flavell's bill has gone beyond compromise. Flavell argued he had "salvaged" the bill. Actually, he hadn't salvaged the bill at all - he'd simply agreed to put his name to a completely different bill altogether.

Flavell has tried his utmost to hide his disappointment, pointing out the Maori Party is but three people and small steps are better than standing still. It is the Maori Party's standard response and is often true. But in this case it is debatable.

It is true that without Flavell's bill, National would have done nothing. Possibly Flavell does want to get some credit out of it. He is more likely to have opened himself to criticism that he has caved in to National and was now giving them his backing to help them sell their far more limited reforms as good for Maori.

When Tremain was asked why he had decided to move on changes to the pokies now, he joked it was because of a bond forged between himself and Flavell in the parliamentary rugby team. "I make him look good," Flavell added.

He was referring to the rugby field but he might as well have been referring to the pokie reforms.