I was at a conference last year just outside Sydney that was hosted in a sports club. I never quite
worked out whether any sport was played there, but what was clear was there was a hell of a lot of
gambling going on. Pokie machines took up a huge section of the ground floor, and in a few months’
time, the extension would be finished, accommodating hundreds more. It had a couple of TABs
onsite: indoors and outdoors so you can carry on smoking while you gamble. Nice friendly family
feel too: they even have free bingo for the kids on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so the younger
generation don’t have to miss out. Lots of people from the local community go there because all
that gambling subsidises the bars and the food - we paid something like $10 a head for a three
course meal with drinks. It’s a great community asset, just so long as you don’t think about the faces
of the people glued to the slot machines, gambling away their wages and their lives for hours on
end, the children who won’t be fed or whose piggy banks will be raided to cover the latest gambling
debt, the hurt it will do to that community. Oh, but it always exceeds its legislated requirement
to give money to charity, so that surely makes it all ok. It’s times like this when you realise the
importance of organisations like the Problem Gambling Foundation.
Until I started writing this piece, I assumed that most people don’t need convincing that gambling is
a nasty, destructive addiction. However, reading Eric Crampton in the National Business Review, it’s
clear that there’s at least a section of the right wing that, like with most problems, treat gambling
addiction as a moral failing evident in other people, but one that shouldn’t prevent decent folk from
having their fun. I take it that Eric hasn’t had a gambling addict in his family.
So here’s how the right wing logic goes: gambling is fine, it’s just that some weak-willed people
don’t know when to stop. Of course, the charities that deal with the resulting mess feel strongly
about it, but they should just get on with picking up the pieces, and leave lobbying government to
the gambling industry who can afford to pay for corporate boxes at the rugby world cup. That’s fine,
because the gambling industry uses its own money for lobbying. Well, ok, it’s not actually its own
money – it’s the money it took off the gambling addicts who that charity is now trying to help. In
fact, National had a chance to pass legislation to make the casinos pay back gambled money that
had been stolen, like in the recent case of the $150,000 stolen from the early childhood centre, but
that wouldn’t be fair would it?
There are a number of really disturbing features about the news that the Problem Gambling
Foundation is going to lose most of its contracts. Firstly and most importantly is the impact on
people – the people who work there, the people they work with, and the relationships that they
have built. Each time National puts out contracts ‘to the market’ they destroy all of that intangible
value that they have forgotten to count, and the market might win, but the people always lose.
Who knows what impact moving services to a particular kind of religious organisation will have on
whether people will seek help? I know I would feel uncomfortable referring people to the Salvation
Army. The Problem Gambling Foundation keeps the Asian service, but where do you go if you’re not
a Christian and not Asian?
The concentration of services with larger providers is something the National government is
really keen on. They claim it’s about streamlining administration costs, which is usually nonsense
(think how much money has been saved in merging eight councils into the Supercity) – really it’s
a great way of reducing dissent when you make cuts. You give an organisation a heap of different
contracts with government, and then you start squeezing them, cutting funding, taking away
certain programmes. By then, the organisation has such a vested interest in staying friendly with
government that it can’t protest for fear of losing other contracts. The process of how decisions like the one to take away contracts from the Problem Gambling Foundation is really murky. Notice how quick Peter Dunne is to distance himself from how any decisions are made. The rhetoric about putting contracts out to tender is to increase transparency, while in fact everyone shrouds themselves in ‘commercial confidentiality’ and no one ever knows how or why the contracts get awarded. But what is clear is that no politician wants to be seen as responsible. Surely the Minister in charge should know why the contract was taken from one group and given to another. Isn’t that what Ministers are supposed to get paid for?
Of course, we know that the main driving force behind taking away the contract is how successful the problem Gambling Foundation has been at engaging communities in challenging gambling and pushing for sinking lid policies on pokies, all of which annoys John Key’s rich casino mates.
The really significant long term and insidious impact of decisions like this is the attack on advocacy.
Government is trying to shut down civil society and prevent anyone from speaking out about
anything for fear of retribution or losing their contract or their job. We saw that last year when John
Key threatened the Human Rights Commission over their report on the GCSB legislation, when Judith Collins took away funding for law reform from Community Law Centres, and with the increased level of threats by the Department of Internal Affairs to remove organisations’ charitable status if they engage in advocacy. The Taxpayer’s union is loving it, and will continue to champion the removal of our democratic rights all the way to election day.
So what do we do? First up is a call for the funding for the Problem Gambling Foundation to be
reinstated immediately. I’d like to see them lead a protest outside Sky City to save their service and
their workers’ jobs. Second, we have to keep up the pressure against Sky City and their dodgy deals
with government. Thirdly, we have to keep speaking out, to challenge the government all the time
and everywhere so they know they can’t shut down all dissent. And most importantly, we have to
work as hard as we can to bring this government down.