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Gambling: A Green Perspective

Speech by Green MP Sue Bradford

Conference on Gambling : Social and Economic Sustainability

9.50am Thursday 15 March 2001

James Cook Centra, Wellington

Kia ora koutou,

First of all, I'd like to express my thanks to the organisers of this Conference for extending an invitation to myself as a Green Party representative to have some input on such a significant day.

I have had a few problems of my own on another front this week, and I welcome the opportunity this morning to be among people whom I am sure share my deep concerns about the extent to which the sheer scale of gambling impacts on the lives of ordinary people in Aotearoa New Zealand today.

I would never claim to be an expert on this issue, unlike most of you who are here today. Nor am I the official Green Party spokesperson on gambling - that perogative lies with Sue Kedgley, who gives her sincere apologies for not being able to be with you this morning.

However, for 16 years from 1983 until 1999 I worked on a daily basis with unemployed people and beneficiaries in the Auckland region. I have seen with my own eyes the effect of the ever increasing availability of different forms of gambling on the people who can least afford to be sucked in.

I remember some of you from some of those first efforts to resist the introduction of the Auckland Casino. Years later, on the only occasion on which I ever ventured within the doors of Sky City, I almost cried to see women beneficiaries I knew from the Peoples Centre crouched in the dark over those hypnotic poker machines.

I came to learn of these and others who went up to the casino daily, just another extension of lives all over this country where housie, the pokies and lotto have come to signify the sole and bitter hope for a better future for so many people.

I must say quickly here that I do not want to engage in hypocrisy. I do not personally have any particular moral scruples about gambling, which is an ancient source or enjoyment across many cultures, and one on which I do waste a little of my own money. I would also like to declare historical vested interest in the fact that many of the community groups I've worked with have benefited from much needed and much appreciated Lotteries funding over the years.

However, I believe that the problem in our country in this generation lies not with the morality of gambling in itself, but in the way in which the opportunities to gamble have proliferated and become endemic among massive sections of the population, across all income, geographical, gender and ethnic boundaries.

We've had Government after Government, of all shades, keen to use gambling as a positive economic development model. They preach about outcomes like job creation and spinoffs for local business while failing to recognise the downstream detrimental effects on individuals and families, or to consider the range of other far more positive options that could be available for local economic development.

One of the worst hypocrisies inside the cant of big business gambling is the one which says the industry is primarily targeted at wealthy tourists. If only this was so. In fact it is local people living in poverty from whom a huge proportion of the profits are taken.

At the same time, when local communities, health and welfare professionals, non governmental organisations and others come together to resist the expansion of casinos and poker machines, one of the first responses is that the problem of gambling is simply one of pathology, a pathology that affects only a fraction of those who are adversely affected. We then enter the specious debate about whether it's one or two per cent of the population who are the true addicts, and talk about how much money the industry is putting back into helping these poor people.

Governments have a huge vested interest in continuing with the expansion of the industry. Gambling tax take has reached at least $450 million a year, while the number of casinos and poker machines proliferate. At the same time there are never enough resources put into the problems which gambling addiction accentuates and worsens, such as poverty, domestic violence, abuse and neglect, other addictions, crime, family breakup, and in the worst cases, business failures, suicide and murder.

Last week the Department of Internal Affairs released its Gaming Review consultation paper - the reason for our being here today. We have been given only until the 30th of April to make submissions to the Review, and I commend Ralph, the Compulsive Gambling Society and others involved for taking such quick action in organising today's symposium as a bid to generate and improve the quality of public debate and input into the review.

Looking at the exciting programme before us today, I see this forum as an attempt to engender the badly needed broader social policy debate about how we balance the rights of people to enjoy gambling and those of Government and industry to make money out of it, while at the same time minimising harm to individuals, families and the wider community and economy.

The current Gaming Review does not mention concepts of economic and social sustainability. It evades the need for a nationwide social and economic impact analysis within which to frame policy development and appropriate legislation. Hard questions need to be asked about why a Government committed to principles of socioeconomic equity is not taking a deeper and more disciplined approach to a question of such wide public concern.

In Australia substantial steps are being made to control levels of supply, to introduce public service messages about the risks of gambling, and to notify consumers clearly about the odds of winning on the various games. The Australians have also provided leading research, including possibly the most comprehensive research undertaken in recent times, that released by the Australian Productivity Commision in November 1999.

Among other things, this report concluded that no conclusive evidence could be found to sustain the argument for gambling providing a net gain in jobs, or providing new money for regional or national economies. In the case of casinos, the Commission found that no hard evidence exists for the claim of expanded job creation other than in the one off construction phase.

The study also found that 35 per cent of all of the money for gambling came from problem gamblers who are thus an undeniably important customer base for the industry.

And in the case of the most addictive forms of gambling, the study concurred with New Zealand clinical and case experience in finding that 46 per cent of all of the income from poker machines outside casinos came from problem gamblers, while 15 per cent of all casino patrons at any one time were problem gamblers, again indicating that people whose gambling had got out of control were a significant customer base, and not confined to a very tiny percentage labelled 'pathological'.

In Australia, as in New Zealand, women and young unemployed men were found to be the rapidly emerging victims of problem gambling, with 50 per cent of all those presenting in clinics being women with poker machine addiction.

Other Australian studies have shown that 70 per cent of the income lost on pokies comes from the lowest socioeconomic group. This coincides with the NZ experience as far as many of us perceive it, with gambling here having an ever increasing impact on women, and through them, on their children and teenagers at home.

We are now in our third Government review of gambling since 1995. It is time that we took all factors into account, with holistic analysis and strategies that cover all the ramifications of the laissez faire policies of the last decade. It is not good enough that the hard data is not collected as a matter of course by some of the legions of policy analysts I've discovered inhabit Wellington. It is not good enough that Governments, even a Labour-Alliance one, continue to use the conscience vote as a means of evading collective responsibility to develop durable, sensible and balanced public policy in this area.

The task for the Green Party in Parliament and for our allies on this issue outside it is to demand a much higher degree of transparency and accountability in an area of activity that has ballooned eight fold in the last decade. It is deplorable that the current Gaming Review only allows two months for public submissions, with no open consultation processes, no public forums of any note, and no evidence other than that offered by Professor Abbott. And why doesn't the Gaming document include an analysis of the international evidence, including the major Australian study to which I've just referred?

I hope the Government does intend to make some major and coherent policy decisions about the future of gambling in this country as a result of this Review. However, it needs to go beyond the individual and diverse opinions of its MPs and of vested industry interests, and involve a deeper analysis and a wider public consultation than the current processes appear to allow. From an MP's point of view, I believe that we can't go on seeing gambling simply as a cash cow on the one hand and a conscience vote on the other, without having a pretty slack attitude to our own responsibilities and values.

I remember years ago in my first and only year as a member of the newly formed New Labour Party being struck forcibly by the contradiction inherent in the fact that the Party was running housie nights in South Auckland to fund its operations, taking money from the poorest of the poor to go out and fight for social and economic justice. It stuck in my craw then, as it does to this day, and I would really like to discover just how many members of our current Parliament continue to have their operations and campaigns funded from the takings of poker machines and housie nights. I find this simply untenable, and even more so in parties who claim to represent the poor and oppressed.

The Green Party stands for a sustainable social, economic and physical environment. I can assure you that none of our MPs or party branches are funded or captured in any way by the proceeds of poker machines or housie - though to be honest, our local organisations do run the odd raffle, but I don't really see these as a significant cause of the damage caused by out of hand gambling.

The Green Party will not be compromised in looking at hard ethical and financial issues when determining what should constitute the fair provision of gambling. I am very interested in finding out to what extent other politicians have been compromised by the industry, and whether my fellow Green Party members would support legislation to prevent contributions from gambling profits to election campaigns, as is the case in many countries overseas.

During the review process we will be calling for the establishment of an independent regulator free from the current conflicts between policy advice, enforcement and the preservation of a number of Government funding streams. We will work to try and ensure that regular social, economic and environmental impacts are undertaken as part of analysis by Local Government.

We will recommend control on the levels of supply, and for increased public information and consumer protection. We will push for the development of a national database to closely monitor the economic and social sustainability of all forms of gambling, and to have this supported by an independent research programme so that future decisions can be based on high quality facts and analysis.

The current debate around gambling must be underpinned by a strong sense of social justice and political transparency. We will be watching very closely to try and ensure that the Review of Gaming will be open, honest and accountable. The voices of ordinary people, community organisations, churches, Local Government, and of professionals working in relevant fields must be heard.

We all need to be involved in decisions about how much gambling should be provided, by whom, for whom, and for what purpose. The days of New Zealand as the wild frontier of gambling must be brought to an end as soon as possible. I have no desire to see my children or anyone else's inherit the Nevada of the South Pacific.

ends


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