Hard News by Russell Brown

The Moral Lottery

What kind of family-friendly party uses its limited political leverage to procure changes in gambling laws that will, without a shadow of a doubt, destroy a few more families? United Future, apparently.

The new Gambling Bill, which passed another stage in Parliament yesterday, has caused "very grave concern" in the Labour Party council, which according to a memo leaked to Sue Bradford of the Greens, is concerned about amendments it believes were forced on the government by United Future.

In Who's Driving the Gambling Bill?, Scoop's Sludge Report pondered yesterday how a bill that was intended to curb the harm caused by the gambling industry came to help it in some significant ways. The Government Administration Committee's report, from which various recommendations have been overturned, is here.

United Future's Internal Affairs spokesman Marc Alexander was quickly on the defensive yesterday, issuing a press release implying that the only significant changes his party had inserted to the bill were "the strengthening of mechanisms for helping problem gamblers" and the blocking of the Green-backed plan to centralise the distribution of money from pokies. He specifically denied any role by his party in ushering in Internet gambling:

"There is all sorts of political humbug and not a little confusion flying around at the moment, so for the record, once again, United Future did not bring the amendment to the Bill that would allow Internet gambling."

This is disingenuous bordering on deceitful. And to see how, you only have to go back a week, to United Future's last press release on the bill, where Alexander and his party leader, Peter Dunne, were bragging about their influence on the new law:

Other key changes secured by United Future include:

* The Gaming Commission, as an appellate body, will be totally independent of Internal Affairs gaming authorities and report directly to the Minister, and not the department.

* The overturning of the Government Administration Select Committee ban on note-accepting gaming machines, with maximum $20 note-acceptor machines permissible, in line with Australian standards.

United Future's internal affairs spokesman Marc Alexander added that the party was very happy with a number of Labour amendments agreed during negotiations and contained in the SOP.

"We're particularly pleased with the changes allowing the Lotteries Commission to move into Internet-based gaming."

In truth, the Commission's proposals for interactive gambling seem relatively modest, and I suppose if any organisation is granted the right to do it, it should be the Lotteries Commission. We could all have done without it though. But in what possible sense is a tenfold increase - from $2 coins to $20 notes - in the rate at which pokies can suck away money from the vulnerable "family-friendly"? (NB: this isn't quite right - see the PS at the bottom for correction.)

Alexander was up in Parliament yesterday asking "what kind of signal" a judge's granting of leave to appeal for home detention for the hapless Darren McDonald was sending. Well, Mr Alexander, what kind of signals have you been sending lately? And do you plan to take the rap when some family's food money is spent in a pokie machine?

Anyone who knows anything about addiction treatment knows that gambling addicts, alcoholics and other drug addicts very often are treated in the same facilities. According to ALAC, last year 18 per cent of new clients at the Auckland Regional Alcohol and Drug Service met criteria for problem gambling. Eleven percent were probably "pathological gamblers".

A certain sympathy towards the interests of the liquor, tobacco and gambling industries has, of course, been a hallmark of Peter Dunne's Parliamentary career. Norml listed his form thus:

Dunne has a history of giving political support to both the liquor and the tobacco industry. In 1991, he lobbied for investment certainty for the tobacco industry. In 1997, he voted against raising the smoking age from 16 to 18 and defended the voluntary advertising code between the Government and the tobacco industry. In 1999 he voted for the Sale of Liquor Amendment Act No. 2, which lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18. He opposed putting health warning labels on alcohol vessels; and in July 2001, labelled tobacco control laws a failure, despite the fact that for 10 years now New Zealanders have reduced their tobacco use by over 30 percent!

And, of course, a little tobacco industry hospitality that Dunne accepted a few years ago continues to haunt him.

Yes, of course The Greens are vulnerable to criticism that they look too fondly on marijuana, but at least their harm-reduction philosophy is fairly consistent (although it's hard to see how they could support Norml's coffeeshop proposal and banning smoking in bars).

But United Future - a party which has raised moral panic about everything from video games to medical marijuana in this Parliamentary term - seems morally, philosophically and practically conflicted. More than that, it just looks weird.

PS: A friend of mine has just called to point out that pokies in some bars and RSAs have been accepting banknotes for a while. Forgive me for being unfamiliar with the latest practices for relieving the vulnerable of their money.

So it was the select committee's recommendation that the machines henceforth be limited to coin operation that United Future managed to overturn. But the point stands. Dunne has, in the past defended the public's right to have a "harmless flutter" on the pokies. With $20 notes? I don't think so.