Government could fix gambling but won't

By Contributor

You unlock your iPhone with your face, so why isn't government using kiwi-made tech to end billions of dollars in gambling harm that affects 250,000 adults and their whānau every year.

Māori TV has agreed to keep the name of this contributor anonymous to protect the whānau involved.

OPINION: I’m sitting in my car outside a sketchy pub on the east coast with the person I love more than anything in the world.

It’s one of the crappiest days of my life, and one that I feel doomed to repeat until either we break up or he goes to jail for theft.

"Get f****d! I’m not going in there to get a f***ing mug shot in front of every ***** I know," he gripes.

Aroha mai about the language. I want a polaroid of him taken so the pub knows he's a problem gambler and will keep him out.

Whānau face this battle everyday as we try and help our loved ones get banned from pokies, TABs and casinos. It's often how we spend our weekends, on the world’s worst pub crawl, venue to venue.

There's no easy way to do this. Well, there is, just not in our country.

Photo filed away

"You’re a good bastard. You don’t have a problem, do ya my bro?" one publican greased, a guy whose brotherly love helped my partner flush three grand into the TAB coffers the night before. He either doesn’t get addiction or, like our government through its Pokie and Casino taxes and TAB ownership, makes a fortune out of it. Who is he trying to convince with his denial of my partner's addiction?

Experience says the picture will be filed in a ring binder under the bar, with the iron-clad guarantee my partner won’t be able to gamble in the pub again, until the next bar shift at 3pm, at least.

'This doesn’t matter to me, nobody I know or love is a problem gambler', you might be thinking, in all likelihood you’re wrong.

About 250,000 adults, the size of the population of Wellington, are struggling with some form of gambling issue in Aotearoa. They’re kuia and koroua, parents, sisters, brothers. You will know someone, or somebody that's being affected by an addict's actions.

It's a hidden crisis, because it's sort of humiliating, the government is humiliated by how much money it is taking out of the pockets of working families, the publicans are ashamed of the fact that and booze are what puts food on the table, and the gamblers themselves, well denial is the ultimate hallmark of addiction.

World-first tech

Things are getting worse with technology by the way, a recent report revealed the emergence of off-shore online gambling sites saw Kiwibank customers spending around $30 million every month on them.

Our best technological solution to tackle problem-gambling is still the ring-binder. This, in the age of driver-less Teslas, Uber Eats and algorithms.

If gambling is so bad, and industry and the government knows it is bad, surely we would have developed solutions to tackle it?

Well, it turns out we did, almost 10 years ago. 

In 2013 a New Zealand company developed a world-first facial recognition system - similar to what's on your iPhone. Problem gamblers could submit one image to a national database and CCTV cameras would ensure they're excluded from gambling venues.

Genius, right?

Not according to the Department of Internal Affairs, our government body tasked with policing the TAB and gambling in general. They weighed in as soon as the system was released, and their review was scathing.

No sense

"Caution urged regarding the use of facial recognition software", stated a July 2013 press release that’s still available on the DIA website today.

Just a reminder, this is a government department that frantically deployed facial recognition in our airports almost a decade ago to hedge against a terror threat that never really eventuated.

Almost 6,000 publicly funded security cameras in Tāmaki Makaurau monitor our every move using similar tech.

Intelligence agencies just got an additional $100 million over four years to spy on us using similar tech.

So what’s the rub with gambling?

In a word? Taxes.

$500 a head

Aotearoa’s pokies are dominated by enormous overseas interests like SkyCity, but the government gets a big chunk of their earnings through taxes. Then, there's the TAB.

The government, via its gambling body, the New Zealand Racing Board is by far the biggest stakeholder in betting in Aotearoa and by all accounts the TAB is nailing it.

Racing board revenues are about $2.67 billion a year. That trumps the $1.8 billion from tobacco levies, and dwarfs the $1.2 billion from petrol tax.

It's good if you're a business, probably tougher if you give a ... about people. Those "revenues" amount to a loss of about $500 a head for every man, woman and child in Aotearoa every year.

Collectively, we lost $2.25 billion to gambling last year. Did you know that? Probably not.

If this $500 was a pointless new tax levied by Labour, National would be up in arms. A cut to social services? You’d never hear the end of it from the Greens. This issue? It's as silent as an urupā.

Frequently successful

These numbers don’t account for all the online overseas gambling by the way, truth is, we don't really know how much people are losing on those sites. If the government looked into it, people might start asking questions closer to home, in our own jurisdiction, where politicians could actually intervene with legislation to prevent some of the harm/ profits occurring.

People that get gambling say government and industry rely on the fact people won't bitch about what they lose because of the humiliation that comes with gambling.

Gamblers are frequently successful in other areas of life. They’re often business people, lawyers, sportspeople who think they can beat the system. Others are just desperate and, when they do lose, they hide the fact that they've bet the little money the family has, on red.

The marketing departments of the nation's casinos and gambling outlets working overtime to make their industry that peddles in misery look glamorous, don't help.

Ever been up the escalator at SkyCity? The place is littered with decals of smiling people in thousand dollar dresses with porcelain veneers portraying something so far removed from the misery that belies many of the patrons inside.

Either way, this industry is 'sexy' and so the chorus of people demanding rule changes is a small one.

Smoking was sexy once too though, so there's hope?

Forget the vaccine protests. That camp outside Parliament would be better served fighting the mandate our government has given to those peddling in pokies.


The media take some blame too.

I reported earnings results of Casino giants like SkyCity in a past life, with adulation and admitedly zero thought about where that money actually comes from. When the $400 million SkyCity convention centre went up in flames, I led hours-long live coverage despairing at the damage. Occasionally I'd gesticulate to the air bridge which ties the convention centre to its funding base, the casino. 

Now I've experienced problem gambling first hand, I see the bridge as an umbilical cord to the casino, the money taker and misery maker.

I remember one bloke on the balcony slot machines that day. Flames rising 10-foot high behind him, he didn’t turn around or flinch once. When hurried staff tried to evacuate him, he vehemently opposed leaving. I thought at the time it was staying power.  Today I know it’s addiction.

"SkyCity says NZ lockdown is costing it $1m in profit a day’ was a recent headline. 

‘Lockdown saves Kiwis $1m a day at SkyCity’ probably could have been a better headline.

Sad faces

Another media report I saw looked at pokie operators lobbying against a $5 million increase to the levy that funds rehab programmes for problem gamblers. The current levy is just 1.3% of gross profits.

The reporter explained the lobby group was upset because the Salvation Army was apparently useless at spending hard-earned gambling profits rehabilitating people. They wanted  "better results from gambling addiction services". These are services that get less funding than SkyCity and Lotto’s annual marketing budgets. They have to be taking the piss, surely?

The reporter even parroted talking points about how the Sallies’ funding might be better invested into the casinos themselves. Seriously!

Let me circle back to the facial recognition technology that was slammed by the government, though.

Turns out, it actually works! ... Well, in South Australia, where their government has been brave enough to implement it. All the data they have so far, paints an optimistic picture.

Even gambling bodies in New Zealand now seem to be acknowledging it might not be a terrible idea. SkyCity has even put similar tech into its casinos and recently started sharing data with the Ministry of Health.

The only issue? The data wasn't used by the ministry for a national database to defeat problem gambling. Instead, it was used for Covid-19 tracing.

If you really push politicians, they’ll put on sad faces about problem gambling, but they're pretty gutless. They won’t say the government oversees the largest gambling network in the country through TABs. Or that it rivals tobacco and alcohol as the most addictive, profitable, legal business known to man.

They definitely won’t tell you what they plan to do about it.