'Through hell and back' - Auckland councillor calls for gambling reform

By Contributor

Auckland councillor Josephine Bartley with a picture of her mother Ruth who she says had a chronic gambling problem, which led to her eventually losing the family home in Māngere. / Abigail Dougherty, Stuff

By Stephen Forbes, Local Democracy reporter

Auckland councillor Josephine Bartley has seen first-hand the destructive impact of problem gambling and is calling for changes to the way the pokie machine industry is regulated.

Bartley is the deputy chairperson of the council's regulatory committee and grew up in Māngere, south Auckland.

She said her mother Ruth, who passed away in 2019, was addicted to playing pokie machines.

"My mother was a chronic problem gambler and we lost our family home because of it," she said. "So I fully understand the pain it causes."

Bartley said it was a surprise to her and her siblings when they first became aware of her prolific gambling habit.

"We found out after people started telling us how much money she owed them."

Bartley said her dad died in 1997 and her mother's gambling spiralled out of control after that and eventually led to the bank foreclosing on the family home.

"That's the thing with addiction, you can't control it," she said.

But Bartley said despite the impact it had on them, her mother never got treatment for her gambling problem.

Bartley said coming to terms with her mother's addiction hadn't been easy for the family.

"We've been through hell and back since. But we've had to carry on as a family and be there for each other. It's a long journey."

She said increasing the powers councils have to regulate the industry is needed, as local authorities are limited in what they can do to address the impact of problem gambling under the Gambling Act 2003.

"We need to have more controls over where pokie machines are located and how many there are," Bartley said.

"Because we know they are in neighbourhoods where we already have high levels of deprivation, where people are struggling."

A report to the Auckland Council's regulatory committee in 2020 found more than half the people in the region seeking treatment for pokie machine gambling addictions were from south Auckland.

Problem Gambling Foundation spokeswoman Andree Froude said the stats highlighted the need for tighter regulation of the industry.

"And it just shows how much money is being sucked out of these communities by pokie machines," she said.

In October 2020 the Auckland Council voted to retain its sinking lid policy for class 4 gaming machines in the region.

The policy means no new consents are issued for new venues and it prevents the pokies from one club being transferred to another if it closes.

But Froude said while sinking lids helped draw a line in the sand and stopped new venues opening, they were very slow at reducing the overall number of machines.

"I think a lot of councils feel hamstrung because they can't do much to reduce pokie machine numbers. Councils need to have the power to remove them from areas where they are causing the most harm."

In a statement, Internal Affairs Minister Jan Tinetti said she recognised there were issues with the Gambling Act 2003 in its current form and had instructed officials to look at reviewing the legislation next year.

"I agree that more systematic change is needed to reduce harm from gambling overall, including how to address the impact of pokie machines on poorer communities such as south Auckland," she said.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air