Colourful talk radio host wants to change what he sees as liquor trusts' unhealthy monopoly from the inside but they defend set-up as democracy in action, saying proportion of payouts to turnover is about to pick up.
The pub crawl starts at the Korner Bar in Kelston at 1.42pm on a Friday afternoon. We're not drinking, so it's a fleeting visit - just long enough to count the 23 people focused on the pub's 18 pokies, and note the one patron having a quiet beer in the bar.
Next stop is The Glen, in Glen Eden Mall. Eleven of the 12 players in the pokie room are female. A rough looking fella sips a pre-mixed Jack Daniels in the bar. Three more drinkers are puffing away in the smoking area.
The Main Street Bar in Henderson has 16 pokie players and no drinkers. Diagonally across the road at Legends Sports Bar & Cafe it's the same story - 16 pokie players, zero drinkers.
Much like the zombies at the pokies, these pubs are clones - cheap furniture, pool table, a TV or two and maybe a TAB.
Bar 159 on Lincoln Rd is different. A music video plays on the big screen. The two huge flat-screen TVs feature sport. The furniture is a step up, but a tasty-looking bar menu offering salt and pepper squid, tempura mussels and garlic prawns hasn't tempted the two drinkers, who prefer to smoke outside. The pokie room is harder to find, but clearly not impossible, as 17 of the 18 machines are in use.
Last stop is the Hangar Bar on Central Park Drive. The decor is welcoming, the music soulful, and the three large groups of diners might be enjoying seared sesame tuna ($18) or the Japanese mixed grill ($28.50). Barman Albert says it will start to fill up soon. DJs get it pumping on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, while the quiz night also packs in the punters on a Tuesday.
The Hangar is one of two trusts-operated venues without pokies.
Ponsonby's Chapel Bar and Bistro doesn't have pokies, either. Inside, John Tamihere sips a Heineken. It was Tamihere who organised the Herald's tour out West with the Waipareira Trust's communications director, Joseph Lose. Now we're talking about the former Labour MP's decision to stand for election to the Waitakere Licensing Trust Board.
What we've just seen, he says, is an example of how West Auckland's alcohol licensing trusts use their control of the region's pubs to maximise gambling revenue through pokies. The gambling money, he says, is then used to peddle influence and spread pro-trust propaganda, which reinforces the position of the liquor trusts.
The West's drinkers are suckers, says Tamihere. They pay over the odds for their booze at the trusts' bottle stores, are forced to drink in dives and are subjected to banks of pokies when they do.
"It's an ugly drinking culture," says Tamihere. "It sets up a false world where the leadership of the trusts can make out that we don't have any drinking problems out West. That is because we migrate them into town or over on to the Shore. No right-minded youth or family will go out anywhere in the West because they are dives. The culture has been perverted by the way the trusts just want to monopolise pokies."
Tamihere wants to get elected so he can change things from the inside. But is change really necessary? Like many things involving the colourful talk radio host, the answer is not straightforward.
Two weeks later we take another tour, this time with Ross Clow, the long-serving president of the Portage Licensing Trust and chairman of The Trusts Community Foundation.
Clow is anxious to show off the trust's recently renovated bottle stores and to demonstrate the other side of the Westie drinking culture. He takes us to Bricklane Restaurant & Bar in New Lynn, which bills itself as West Auckland's finest eatery. On Friday just after 3.30pm 35 people are already drinking and eating in the stylishly appointed bar.
It recently won an award for discreet gaming, says Clow, so it's no surprise the pokie room is hard to find. When we do, it's empty.
Black Salt sits opposite David Cunliffe's electorate office on Great North Rd. The gastro bar has replaced the run-down Peninsula Hotel. The trust declined the option to move the old pub's pokies into Black Salt, at the heart of a dining hub that will cater for the high-density housing springing up around the new train station.
As well as rebutting Tamihere's ugly drinking culture claims, Clow's aim is to show where the money from the liquor trusts' combined $100 million turnover is going. Money, it will surprise no one, is at the heart of this issue.
TTCF's accounts show it paid $10.57 million in pokie revenue to West Auckland causes last year. Clow stands firmly by the claim that 97 per cent of the cash raised out West is returned to the West. He should know. As president of the Portage trust he is responsible for making the recommendations to TTCF on how money raised in its venues should be spent. Given he is also chairman of TTCF, Clow could be accused of making recommendations to himself. He defends the system as a sound way of making sure the money goes to the right places and insists he recuses himself when TTCF votes on Portage's recommendations.
Tamihere disputes figures surrounding the return of money to West Auckland, but says he won't be able to prove his case until he gets access to the trusts' full accounts.
"If I have to go to the High Court to break it open I will," he says. "There is something not right here. I know my community. There is nothing like that being spent out here."
Then there is the question of who really distributes the money. For years statements issued by the liquor licensing trusts have indicated the money comes from them. It doesn't. It comes from TTCF, which is a separate financial entity.
The most recent reports from the liquor trusts explicitly state they only make recommendations about gaming money, but as recently as his 2012 president's report, Clow seemed to be implying Portage was returning millions of dollars to the community. "Portage Trust's combined return in 2012 was a satisfactory $6.7 million," the report states.
The actual return from the liquor trusts was $177,019. That figure includes rebates - essentially cheap deals for clubs on booze - and $101,000 in sponsorships. In terms of straight-out donations, the two liquor trusts paid out $38,000.
"If $38,000 is the only profit they are getting out of $100 million turnover, stop the monopoly," says Tamihere. "It's an unhealthy monopoly."
The trusts aren't a monopoly, and neither are they unhealthy, insists Simon Wickham, chief executive of West Auckland Trust Services, the body that oversees their operation.
Wickham is not surprised by Tamihere's attack. His emailed response runs to more than 5000 words. The trusts are clearly well used to defending themselves.
Wickham describes the trusts as "democracy in action". Donations might have been a tiny percentage of turnover in recent years, but that was about to change, he said. Having consolidated the business, the trusts would increase their community payouts. This financial year they would pay out $1 million. The following year the figure would rise to $3 million. Then there are the social benefits - fewer bottle stores per head, better controls on opening hours and better-enforced restrictions on sales to minors and drunks.
Tamihere is having none of it. He has used his radio show to pillory Clow and his fellow trustees, daring them to sue him. "They ain't going to sue me because they'd then have to open up the books."
While he accuses the likes of Clow of pandering to special interests, Tamihere doesn't deny he's seeking election to further his own cause.
"That's absolutely true. I want the money to come back into West Auckland to achieve things that we can all see, feel and understand. I want to lift the literacy status of Westie schools so we don't feel obliged to drive away from them, like one-third of our secondary students do.
"I want transparency. And I want a different drinking culture, where there are little cafes."
Ah, yes. Those pokie dives. Clow is unapologetic. The trusts' pubs need to be all things to all people. "We have got to provide for working people."
He denies that any of the trusts' establishments need the pokies to survive. He says the ratio of gaming machines to people in West Auckland is low by national standards.
The way out West
How the West's trusts system works:
* All wholesale liquor outlets (22) and public bars (17) are owned and operated by the Portage and Waitakere Licensing Trusts, which have combined assets of more than $46 million and annual turnover of about $100 million.
* Last year the liquor trusts made a profit of $2.4 million. They returned $2000 in donations and wrote off $198,169 in rebates and sponsorships as expenses.
* The trusts' pubs operate 252 gaming machines. Revenue from them goes to The Trusts Community Foundation, which oversees grants back to the community. Last year, it paid out $10,576,575 to causes recommended by the Portage and Waitakere Licensing Trusts.