Farming the addicts for the greater good

MICHAEL LAWS
Last updated 05:00 17/06/2012

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OPINION: It remains a constant source of wonderment that this country's politicians and policy-makers assume all New Zealanders are as educated, rational and remote as themselves.

Hence their genuine belief that every social ill can be cured by a public education campaign, and all deleterious actions by an appeal to commonsense. When none of this works, they will try legislation or regulation, but only if it catches everybody, and not just the irresponsible few.

Hence the cure for child abuse is to stop everyone physically disciplining their kids. And the answer to public drunkenness is, supposedly, to make us all pay more for our booze. If none of that works, we can always apply the futility of gesture – either via the nonsense of one campaign or another that has us sitting in the dark during Earth Hour.

Anything to avoid the truth, that there are some people who simply cannot be trusted to look after themselves. And we are not talking about the demented or mentally infirm, but that gormless group who will cock up every aspect of their life, if you let them.

Such individuals can be found almost any day of the week attending some pokie machine somewhere.

They are disproportionately poor but we insist that any money that they receive – be it by welfare or work – be allowed to be siphoned via the evil of gambling.

Ordinarily I am a libertarian. But just as I regard religious cults as the spawn of the devil, so I regard gambling trusts as fellow travellers. A game of chance is offered in which every odd is stacked against the player. And then we farm these sad suckers for the greater good.

As of today, there are 18,000 pokie machines being operated in New Zealand – in pubs, clubs, casinos and bars. Their takings are presided over by a wide range of vampiric identities – from those that host their physical presence to those 50-odd trusts that administer their winnings. To those sports, voluntary and community groups that share in the spoils.

The latter are currently involved in a campaign to kneecap a private member's bill from Maori party MP Te Ururoa Flavell that has the limited objective of at least returning 80 per cent of the profits to the communities from which they were extracted.

It is no surprise that a Maori MP is promoting this legislation given that Maori are disproportionate players and losers on the pokies. Flavell is simply seeking to limit the damage by giving back to the Kaweraus, the Kaitaias and the Kaikohes, a proportion of the welfare they have gambled away.

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Incredibly, sporting and community groups are resisting the bill. The Arthritis Foundation is outraged. It believes that it is perfectly acceptable to farm the vulnerable to fund their specific vulnerability. It is a morally indefensible viewpoint. If sports groups and national associations are dependent upon gambling monies for their funding then the rot is more significant than we might suppose.

Pokies have been especially singled out as the most pernicious of gambling outlets.

They are designed to be addictive in a way that neither the TAB nor Lotto can properly replicate. Their very purpose is to lull and then excite the player into emptying their pockets as quickly as possible. They are also the predominant outlet for those with gambling addictions.

At heart, we know pokies are bad. Everyone knows this. We have only allowed them to become established in New Zealand because, we argue, they have beneficial ends. Sporting and community groups say that they will grow sick and die unless their own addiction to gambling revenue continues to be met.

I say, let them die. If their argument is that they must visit evil upon the vulnerable to do good with the willing, then the price is too high. But sports administrators profess not to be moralists. Or, it appears, even human.

Currently city and district councils have a limited power to reduce pokie machines in their vicinity. They can apply a sinking lid policy but that's the extent of their influence. Those that do meet orchestrated campaigns from gambling trusts seeking to scare the bejesus out of the groups that they fund.

Flavell's private member's bill is the most gentle of attempts to limit the damage upon the poorer sections of the communities. But it does not go far enough. It should provide those communities to say "No". To excise themselves and their constituents from such influences.

In doing so, those that like the harmless flutter will still be able to flutter.

Lotto, Big Wednesday and similar products sell a dream for the most minor of investments. I've yet to read or research any individual who stole from their company or abandoned their children to chase their jackpot. One cannot make the same claim of pokies. They must go.

mlaws@radiolive.co.nz

- Sunday Star Times

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